Gai Sever

To See the Moon So Clearly

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In this collection, an excerpt from a cycle of five novelettes, Gai Sever spins three stories of great depth, wisdom, and humanity. The richness of the universe he creates stands comparison with Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea or Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, while his understanding of what it means to be a child rivals that of Roald Dahl. Yet Sever conjures up a distinctive world of his own. The resourceful girls and boys featured in these stories display ingenuity, determination and teamwork to overcome the obstacles they face, while the supporting — in every sense — cast of grown-ups show trust and compassion towards them. These three magical tales will enchant children and adults alike.

Ian Appleby

 

Lyeshy the Wood Sprite

To See the Moon So Clearly

The Last of the Eastern Dragons

 

 

Lyeshy the Wood Sprite

Translated from Russian by Simon Geoghegan

 

Mark couldn’t wait for his family’s trips to the forest. The forest was where Lyeshy lived, and you could always go and visit him. Mark was so excited that he didn’t get to sleep until the small hours of the morning. His sheet and blankets were rucked up into a ball and he had thrown his pillow on the floor, having plumped and turned it a hundred times.

But finally, they were off. The roads, which are never straight up in the mountains, weaved and snaked and it took them all day to get there. They arrived in the evening, when the clear autumn sun hung huge and red over the horizon. Finally it went out, leaving the sky to the cold night, the icy twinkling stars and the silvery moon.

Having dropped Mark and Mama off, Papa went to their neighbour’s house, which stood close to the edge of the forest. This was where Papa’s friend was holidaying and Papa was planning to invite him to help “warm” the house. Mark and Mama dragged the bags into the house. That done, Mark announced that he was going straight out to the forest to see Lyeshy who was waiting for him to come and visit him.

“When did he invite you?” asked Mama in surprise. “Are you sure that Lyeshy is expecting you? What if you arrive and he’s busy with something important?”

“No,” said Mark shaking his head. “Lyeshy knows that I’m coming, and I really need to go and see him right now. I don’t want to keep him waiting. It’s time I was gone!”

“Well, let me come with you.”

“But he didn’t invite you!”

“That’s true, but I need to know that you’re going to be all right,” Mama smiled. “After all, I am your mother.”

Mark thought for a bit.

“Okay. But we’ll have to get a move on.”

They left their little house and set off along the path to the forest. Their breath billowed in great plumes of steam, damp yellow leaves carpeted the earth and the wind quietly murmured in the branches. The forest drew closer, calm and splendid. Dusk was beginning to fall. A fragile silence reigned, as if the day had already gone to sleep and the night hadn’t yet roused itself from its slumbers.

Mark glanced about him in all directions. It would have been easy to miss Lyeshy amongst the vegetation in the dusky half light. Although, the forest was far from overgrown what with the trees losing half their leaves. All the same, Mark was very worried that he might not see Lyeshy. He didn’t like being spotted (which is why you always need to have your eyes peeled for a wood sprite: they’re very retiring and rarely show themselves to people).

“He must be around here somewhere,” Mark replied anxiously to his mother’s tender and inquisitive look. “Let’s look for another twenty minutes, he’ll wait for us.”

“We’re in no rush...”

Mama stroked Mark’s head. She bent down to pick up some huge red leaves to add to her yellow and russet bouquet.

“Lyeshy has got a present for me,” Mark announced.

Darkness fell swiftly. Mark peered anxiously amongst the trees.

“Why isn’t he here? It’s already dark and I won’t be able to see him!”

“It is dark, let’s go back. Maybe he’ll be waiting for us on the way.”

“Let’s go,” said Mark nodding his head disappointedly. “Can’t see a thing.”

They turned round and began to head back.

“Why didn’t he come? He knows that I’m coming today and he’s got a present for me!”

“Maybe he didn’t have time?” Mama smiled, softly placing her hand on Mark’s shoulder. “He’s got so much on his plate. The forest is so large and there’s only one of him to look after it. Anyway, we haven’t left the forest yet.”

Mark continued to look and listen out in all directions. The wind had got up and was now almost humming overhead, the fallen leaves rustled under their feet, but that was all. Finally, in the depths of the forest about twenty footsteps away, Mark noticed Lyeshy. He was standing under a huge tree, his eyes shining softly.

“Hello!” Mark cried our joyfully, rushing towards the tree. “Here I am, Lyeshy! I’ve come! Where’s your present?”

Scratching his face on a bush, Mark dashed up to the tree where Lyeshy had only just been standing.

“Lyeshy! Where have you gone now! Come on Lyeshy!”

Then he turned to Mama:

“Mama, you frightened him! He wasn’t waiting for you, and when he saw you he decided to hide!”

Mama ran up to Mark and crouching down touched the scratch on his cheek.

“Lyeshy won’t like it, if you end up poking your eye out!” She pulled a handkerchief from her pocket. “Hold this, let’s go home now and we’ll put something on that.”

“Did you see?! I told you he’d come to meet me!” Mark chirped happily, on their way back to the path, kicking up great tornadoes of dead leaves. “It’s just that he was frightened of you! But I’ll come on my own tomorrow and see him.”

“Okay. Do what you think is best. And you’re right, Lyeshy didn’t actually invite me.”

As they came out onto the track, a small branch fell right into Mark’s path. Mark grabbed it, a cluster of dark crimson berries, slightly musty, slightly wrinkled and slightly damp with several leaves attached that smelled of the cold, some rough and some smooth.

“This is for me from Lyeshy!” Mark declared triumphantly, gently pressing the branch to his chest. “What a wonderful present, look Mama!”

“It’s amazing!” Mama carefully admired the remarkable branch. “Look at the leaves, and the berries! I’ve never seen the like of them.”

“Lyeshy’s got loads of them. But he only gives them to his friends, that’s why you don’t just find them growing in the forest. Have a smell!”

Mama sniffed the branch cautiously.

“It’s very unusual!” she said, taking Mark by the hand. “I think it’s lovely, but we need to get a move on. Papa is probably already back and it’s time for supper. What do you think Lyeshy will be having for supper?”

“Leaves, berries and mushrooms. Sometimes the squirrels bring him nuts. But he only accepts them in order not to hurt their feelings.”

“Why doesn’t he like nuts?” asked Mama in surprise.

“Well you see, he’s a bit old and his teeth aren’t what they used to be.”

They came out of the forest. The sun had gone down and a light golden glow warmed the place where it was now hiding beneath the penetrating dark blue sky. The stars were already awake, tossing, turning and stretching themselves, all the while winking at one another. The mountains cut through the last of the sunset like a great black backbone. The river in the valley shone like a thin cord, reflecting the dying glimmers of the day. The wind whispered drowsily. Birds flew overhead, their muffled wings beating noiselessly. They had slept their fill and were now busy with their affairs before heading out to hunt later on.

Mark turned back towards the forest, pressing the small branch with its berries tight to his chest:

“Lyeshy, I’ll be back to see you again soon! Only, don’t hide next time! We’ll only play for a little while, I won’t keep you for long, you’ve already got so much to do as it is. There’s the forest to get ready for winter and I know that’s not easy... So I understand... Well, see you!”

Mark ran back to Mama, who had been waiting for him nearby. He took her hand and they set off for their little house with its cosy yellow windows lighting up the cold dark of the autumn night.

 

 

The house was filled with the tasty smell of supper. The table in the large room was already set with plates. Mark burst into the bright light of the house, holding his branch aloft over his head.

“I’ve been given a branch! Lyeshy gave it to me as a present!”

“We’ll have a look in a moment,” Papa replied, carrying a large dish full of food into the room. “But first, get out of your boots and coat and go and wash your hands.”

“But they’re clean,” Mark objected. “I’ve only been out to the forest, nowhere else!”

“But before that you and I brought all those dirty bags into the house,” Mama laughed.

“And you went out into the forest with hands like that? Whatever next!” grinned Papa.

“If you don’t hurry up Mark, we’ll have eaten everything without you,” Papa’s friend interrupted decisively. “It’s time for supper!”

Mark washed his hands, admiring the branch, which he had carefully placed nearby on the glass topped table. Wiping his hands on the fluffy towel, he picked up the branch and rushed to the table where he arranged it next to his plate.

“Is this the one? It’s interesting, what is it? I’ve never seen anything like it,” Papa examined the branch closely.

“Lyeshy keeps these as presents. They grow a long way away, right in the middle of the forest and they’re only for presents.”

Mark took up his knife and fork. He kept one eye on the enticing food while the other remained on the branch. Papa picked up the large bowl and began to process around the table, serving out the food as he went.

“It’d be interesting to know what Lyeshy has for supper?” Papa’s friend asked.

“Leaves, berries and mushrooms,” Mark replied as Papa spooned out the tastiest piece for him.

“And in the winter?”

“Dried food. Sometimes the squirrels bring him nuts, only he doesn’t eat them. You have to chew them and he’s a bit old and his teeth aren’t up to it.”

With hot food inside him, Mark felt really sleepy. While the tea was being brought in, Mark began to doze off. And suddenly there he saw Lyeshy. He was standing in a glade by an old moss-covered tree stump. Some birds hopped around him and some squirrels were sat nearby along with a number of other small animals. They were chatting away in hushed tones, but Mark couldn’t make out what they were saying. They appeared to be talking in some sort of special woodland language, to stop people overhearing them and sticking their noses into their woodland affairs.

Mark was hit by a wave of anxiety. After all, Lyeshy had come to meet him and Mama had been there... Lyeshy had taken fright and hidden. Things had worked out really badly, not at all as they should have. Lyeshy was probably thinking the same right now. But what was to be done? He simply hadn’t been able to show himself with Mama there? What would have happened if she had remained on the path and not gone running after him? No, Mark should have gone on his own. It was alright of course for his parents to drive him here. But he should have come to the forest alone.

Mark sensed a muted and mysterious music circling around him. Vague, half recognised sounds made by huge woodwind tree trunks and a percussion section of booming tree stumps. Large eared, shaggy creatures were playing these fantastic instruments and Lyeshy was sitting to one side, thinking about something and listening to the wonderful, entrancing music. He was evidently making a decision about something, a matter of the utmost importance to the forest.

He had so many cares, all of them important. And Mark was only a burden on his time. But that’s just how things had turned out, and it certainly wasn’t Mama’s fault. He himself was to blame. “Lyeshy, where’s my present, me, me, me!” He should have just waited until everyone had fallen asleep and then gone to the forest without anyone knowing about it. That’s what he needed to do. No-one would know, no-one would worry and most important of all, it would be a lot less fuss for Lyeshy.

“Ma...ark,” Mama’s gentle voice carried to him. “Are you asleep?”

“I’m not sleeping,” said Mark barely able to keep his eyes open. “I’m just dozing.”

“Well, drink up your tea and go to bed,” said Papa. “We’re getting up early tomorrow to go to the forest castle.

“What’s the forest castle?” Mark perked up.

“It’s an old run down country estate,” said Papa’s friend. “Nobody’s lived there for over forty years, although it’s the most beautiful place. You really have to go there.”

Mark drank his tea, but he now no longer wanted to sleep. Now he would have to wait until everyone else had fallen asleep. He would fish his torch out of his bag, dress quietly and then go off to see Lyeshy. If only they would be a bit quicker about it. What were they sitting about for, they had an early start tomorrow!

Finally, everyone went off to bed. Mama and Papa wished Mark good night, gave him a kiss and headed off to their room. The lights in the house were extinguished and silence spread to its furthest corners. Mark lay on his bed, patiently looking out of the window. The moon shone in the black sky and the stars gleamed cosily. It seemed as if the world with its boundless and endless sky had suddenly been turned into a huge house. A house without walls, doors or windows but a homely place of one’s own where all was good and calm.

Mark fondly began to think about Lyeshy. What was he doing out there, where was he now? Couldn’t be far away, after all Mark was about to go and see him, but this time he was going without Mama. Most likely he was sitting on a tree stump and thinking. Or maybe not, maybe he was soundlessly wandering along the forest path, making sure that everything was in good order.

Mark got up ever so quietly, dressed, felt around inside the bags and pulled out his torch. He tiptoed out onto the porch where he quickly and carefully put his boots and coat on, wrapping his scarf around his neck. Cautiously closing the door, he jumped down the steps and ran off along the path.

And there was the forest! Mark inhaled the piercing fresh air deep into his lungs. His eyes penetrated the darkness as if by magic. The moon poured its liquid green-tinged silver over the mountains and into the river, which gleamed and overflowed into the valley. The bushes and rocks solidified into pale ghosts. Sounds crystallised in the heavens and fell slowly earthwards, too subtle for the human ear to catch. Immediately permeating everything they touched, the trees, the rocks, the earth and Mark’s intoxicated mind. They rumbled and rang, weighty and timeless yet light and fleeting. The stars slowly sailed into the immense heights almost bobbing on their way.

Mark drank in the nocturnal world – autumnal, cold and boundlessly bright. As if the universe had been traced by an enchanted pen onto the surface of a crystal globe, with Mark at its centre standing in the rays of the moon. The pen, fine, keen and well honed, had engraved the pitch black firmament with bright, clear lines that outlined every mountain fissure and icy star with silver. The river had turned into a million sparkles. The hills into soft, undulating blots. The bushes into long, splayed paint brushes. Boulders were scattered below like peas. The whole world gleamed with the light of the moon, quickening the immeasurably cold heavens with the warmth and comfort of the earth.

Mark turned and headed into the forest.

 

 

He trotted along the path and soon found himself in the spot where he had last seen Lyeshy. Turning here, Mark cautiously made his way through the undergrowth with his torch. The forest hummed its nocturnal song. The night creatures rustled about their business, while birds exchanged calls in muted tones. Mark could sense a pair of unseen eyes calmly observing him. As if someone was hiding behind every tree, ready to peep out and stare at him the moment his back was turned.

The forest whispered away to itself under its breath. Branches cracked and the occasional leaf fell down onto the young boy. Mark walked on for a long time, carefully picking his way through the branches, trying not to upset the harmony and order that was not his to disturb. He came out onto a glade, the stars flickering in the ribbon of sky overhead.

Mark entered it, it deepened, turning into a gully. The trees watched from above, dusted with a light sprinkling of powder from the moon. Mark shone his torch at them and they turned away, alarmed by the bright light. Mark quickly switched it off again. The gully widened, transforming itself into a small valley and Mark noticed that he was now walking along the bank of a small stream.

He crouched down by the water’s edge, dipping his hand in. The water was neither hot nor cold, just like the moonlight splashing in the ripples. The stream quietly bubbled over the shallows, capturing the sparkle of the stars. Mark was convinced that the stream must have flowed straight from the heavens. Firstly, because it seemed to have emerged out of nowhere and secondly how else could it have acquired this colour and smell that so perfectly echoed that of the sky. Mark ladled up the soft, cool water and took a careful sip. The taste was extraordinary.

“It must be a magic stream,” Mark decided, “Lyeshy has brought it down from the skies so that I could try it. Lyeshy, it’s tastes so good, that I don’t even know how to describe it! I’ve never tasted anything as good in my whole life.”

Mark got up and set off alongside the water. The stream brought him to a large forest meadow, where the grass grew as high as your knees. And there in the meadow Mark saw Lyeshy all shaggy and dishevelled. He was standing close by, next to a blackened stump, dappled with leaves and fibrous, old roots. In the silvery darkness Lyeshy’s eyes gleamed brightly.

“Lyeshy!” said Mark rushing towards the stump, “how wonderful the sky tastes!”

But Lyeshy had disappeared again. Mark disconsolately felt all around the stump and, nearly bursting into tears, called out:

“Lyeshy! Where have you gone now! Come out again, I won’t come close! Please, Lyeshy, I promise! But please stay, just for a little while!”

All around the forest whispered and murmured. The wind rustled. A bird hooted. But Lyeshy made no reply, although Mark was sure he was hiding nearby.

The meadow was very big. From one side it broadened and descended to a hollow, where the fluffy crowns of the trees flickered in a starlit haze. The forest swept down from the mountains to the distant lakes on the flats. Beyond them ran the stream that had led Mark to the meadow.

Mark looked behind him and there the snow capped mountain peak reared up into the dark black sky. Its white crown illuminating the night with countless crystals. It was as if the mountain had collected the entire light of the moon and was pouring it forth over the whole world.

Below it, not far away, a small castle shone, although on closer inspection it looked more like a large manor house adorned with numerous towers and parapets. Perhaps this was the forest castle, that Lyeshy invited his friends to? Mark rushed towards it through the moist grass. On reaching the wide open gates, he stopped, hesitated and said in a loud voice:

“Lyeshy, I’m sorry but it’s dark in here... Do you mind if I switch my torch on?”

Lyeshy made no objection. Mark turned on the torch. Its bright, cheerful ray glanced against the wall. Mark stepped over the threshold and looked around him. The interior was silent and forsaken. Mark began to worry again, if Lyeshy was waiting for him, it surely wouldn’t be in here. It would be somewhere different somehow, somewhere that wasn’t so uncared for. Mark decided to have a look around the house.

The ground floor was littered with pieces of broken furniture and glass. The floor boards were missing from the first floor and the windows and doors were all broken. The staircase barely held his weight. Moving as lightly as possible, Mark reached the gloomy attic and spent a long time exploring its passages by the light of his torch. He returned to the ground floor where he started looking for an entrance to the cellars. He found a door and headed down some stairs scanning the dark passages with his torch, but discovered nothing but fine tree roots and other debris.

Mark became very dejected. Why had everything turned out like this? What was stopping Lyeshy coming up to people and just being near them?

“Lyeshy!” Mark called out despairingly. “I so wanted to see you! And all I got was a glimpse of you a couple of times. Tell me, what do I need to do?”

Mark made his way out of the large house. There was a barely perceptible ringing in the heavens, the forest muttered to itself and birds flew overhead, their muffled wings beating noiselessly. Night made its soft progress through the forest, occasionally coming up against a branch with a soft crack. Mark made his way through the cold, wet grass to the black stump and sat down. He sat for a long time dejected and sad, his chin cupped in his hands. He took one last glance at the meadow, the forest, the mountain and the house and sighed:

“Well, I’ll go home then. Although I’m still really glad that I came to see you. And thank you so much for the present! It was so... so... I’ll never have a present like it ever again.”

Mark searched around for the path. He walked despondently, paying no attention to the measured bustle of the night until he reached home. Mark slowly made his way up to the door, quietly opened it, took off his scarf, boots and coat and snuck into his bedroom.

He burrowed into his pillow and burst into tears. He emerged from under his blanket, took the branch from the table and put it on the pillow in front of him.

He lay like that for a long time but for some reason he didn’t feel like crying now. No matter how upset or sad he felt, he just couldn’t cry. He felt like there was a big lump in his chest and a dull ringing in his head. The rectangle of radiant night light pouring through the window was growing more and more lopsided, the time was fast approaching for the moon to make its exit. Mark was just dozing off when there was a scratching at the window.

He jumped out of bed and rushed to the window. There in the little clearing in the rays of the moon stood Lyeshy. Still shaggy, covered in leaves and all sorts of other forest debris from which shone his bright, penetrating eyes. Next to him were some squirrels, several birds and some other small animals. And they were all looking at Mark! They glanced at each other several times and once again turned to him.

Mark felt the heavy stone in his heart erode into a light silver dust and the dull ringing in his head transform into the purest crystal strains, the calm music of the stars. The lump in his chest dissolved and was replaced by something warm and airy. The peace, joy and clarity that he felt at that moment was more intense than anything he had ever experienced in his life.

Then, as unexpectedly as they had arrived, Lyeshy, the squirrels, the birds and small creatures disappeared. The clearing had emptied but the extraordinary euphoric mood remained. Mark watched the skies, glanced at the distant outline of the mountain and then crawled in under his blanket and fell asleep.

 

 

Very early the next morning when the sun was barely awake itself, Mama had already given Mark his tea (made from woodland herbs and berries) and an apple, which he nibbled on the veranda while the grown-ups were getting themselves ready.

The valley below was still swathed in haze, but the sun was already scudding along the distant peaks. The mountains shone with an icy early morning blue, their rosy snow caps twinkling and reflecting the warming rays of the sun. The river was still slumbering somewhere down below in the shadows, but the sun’s rays would soon rouse her into song.

“Hello Mark!” Papa’s friend called out as he came out onto the veranda. “Have you finished your apple? We’re going to have breakfast now and then we’ll be off.”

“Coming,” Mark blew out a warm cloud of steam that turned pink in the rays of the dawn. Once they had sat down to breakfast, Mark announced:

“I went to see Lyeshy last night.”

“On your own?” said Mama in alarm, putting her fork to one side.

“Well, of course, Mama! You saw yourself that he’s hiding from you. He hides from everyone actually.”

“What did you talk about?” Papa asked.

“Nothing very much,” Mark sighed. “He didn’t want to get close. He appeared near the big house and then disappeared.”

“What house was that?” said Papa’s friend with interest. “Was it in the middle of the forest?”

“It was like a miniature castle with lots of little towers and windows. It had a huge attic and a stone cellar, just like a real one. Only everything had been broken a long time ago, all the glass was smashed. Lyeshy doesn’t live there.”

“Of course Lyeshy doesn’t live there,” Mama said. “If he has a home, then it would be more like a hut, although I’m sure he lives in the hollow of a tree or maybe an underground den.”

“I think Lyeshy lives in the hollow of a tree,” Papa agreed.

“Next door to the squirrels,” Mark nodded.

“Maybe he just stays the night there every now and again?” Papa suggested. “The forest is a big place and he’d have to spend the night in different places. He would need lots of places to stay overnight.”

“No,” said Mark shaking his head. “Why would he need a house? He is everywhere, all over the forest, because... well... he’s Lyeshy! He only needs a house when he’s got guests.”

“That makes sense. The forest is all very well, but when you’ve got guests you need a house, don’t you?”

“Of course,” said Mark nodding. “After all, I’m not a Lyeshy, and I probably wouldn’t find it very comfortable in a tree hollow. But that house with the towers is just the job for when you’ve got guests. It’s in a large clearing under the mountain, it’s so lovely and beautiful there!”

“Did you say that it was run down with small towers and under a mountain?” Papa’s friend asked in surprise. “And facing the other way, is there a valley with a hollow in it?

“Yes, that’s it! And you can see the lake from there, although it’s quite a long way away.”

“Well, that’s where we’re headed now! Did you say that you were there last night Mark?”

“Well yes.”

“Well, you see it takes half a day to get there by car. And half a day to get back.”

“What do you mean by car!” Mark snorted. “No-one goes to visit Lyeshy by car. And if you really want to know, Lyeshy, the squirrels and some other little animals were only here last night standing under my window. And you were all asleep and missed everything.”

“Well, that’s a turn up for the book,” said Papa’s friend shaking his head.

“Well, you shouldn’t have gone to sleep. And Lyeshy also let me have some of the sky to drink.”

“How did he do that?”

“He turned it into a stream, that’s how.”

“What was it like?”

“Really delicious.”

With that, Mark got down from the table and set off for the door. He picked off the gold, red and green leaves that had stuck to his boots during the night before putting them on and heading out to the car.

 

 

To See the Moon So Clearly

Translated from Russian by Ian Appleby

 

Princess Thar-Agne was an orphan and so, by rights, it was incorrect to call her a princess. She ought to have been addressed as “Your Majesty,” but they called her a princess: she didn’t yet look like a proper queen, so what were they supposed to do? Apart from one uncle (and he a distant one, at that), she had no relatives left. And that uncle had to bear on his rounded shoulders the burden of ruling the country. When Thar-Agne grew up, then she would be able to do it all herself, but for now she couldn’t just be abandoned to the whims of fate.

There was no shortage of duties associated with running the country, and each one of them was incredibly hard for the young queen. For instance, each morning she had to get up early and get washed and dressed, and not just any old how, but bearing in mind her audiences with important visitors, the majority of whom wished to declare war on the girl and her country.

They were all spiteful and greedy, all demanding either that stretch of coastline where the purple snails were gathered, or that valley in the mountains where the best grapes in the world grew, or that little town that was famous for its jewellers, or something still more. Recently, for example, the threadbare prince from the neighbouring kingdom had demanded that he should be betrothed to Thar-Agne. The prince had even drawn his rapier from its well-darned scabbard and began poking its rusty metal blade all over the place. It’s awful to contemplate what might have happened if it had not been for the uncle’s composure and diplomatic experience: the princess would simply have had no alternative but to send the prince to have his head struck off (which would, more than likely, have led to war).

But that was nothing compared to the tortures which the princess underwent during the solemn ceremonies that were held. They were all conducted according to awful, unbearable rules, when she had to pull on the dusty rags they called clothes, when she had to say only the words that her uncle whispered to her. And when the tortures had taken her last strength, when she wanted to burst out crying in torment, she could not even send anyone to have their head struck off. Each time when Thar-Agne meant, at last, to call the executioner, her uncle would gently sink his fingers into her shoulder. And once again she would have to look at the idiotic expressions on the faces in front of her.

And, today, she was just plain late for her audience. Through the window, grey clouds could be seen speeding past, the wind rattled the eaves and the shutters, and heavy downpours of rain beat tattoos against the window panes. It was cold, it was gloomy, and her uncle was on edge. In such weather, his little niece never wanted to leave her cosy apartments, and even her breakfast had to be carried into her bedchamber. He had to fetch her out for a most important audience. Today, their neighbours from the east had come, with but one goal: to declare war on the princess. Difficult times lay ahead for the uncle. On the one side he would have the princess sulking and sending all and sundry to have their heads struck off, while on the other he would have the emissaries all dripping with gold and flourishing their scimitars.

Thar-Agne had not emerged, and her uncle directed his long thin legs to her bedchamber. At the doors he was met by a detachment of the palace warders most devoted to the princess. “I have orders to send anyone who approaches within three paces of these doors to have their head struck off,” said a warder, brandishing his axe. “There, you have been warned.”

“I know,” replied the uncle with his usual mournful smile, crossing the fatal boundary. “Have you ever sent anyone?”

“Well, no, not really, not yet. But you have been warned!”

The uncle opened the door and went into the bedchamber. The princess was at the window, pressing her face against the glass. Her pillows and bedclothes were scattered about the floor. Her ottomans and couches lay higgledy-piggledy, overturned. The princess was wearing her favourite nightgown, the one with the little blue dragons that matched her eyes. She cherished this nightgown, and only rarely wore it, so this all meant that the princess was in the lowest of spirits. This day was going to demand all the composure and self-restraint that her uncle could muster.

“I see that dear girl who scattered around her pillows and bedclothes and who overturned her ottomans and settees is not even dressed yet.” The uncle walked over to the little girl and put a hand on her shoulder.

“Uncle, I don’t want to get dressed. I want to snuggle up in a blanket and spend all day sitting at the window. Right here, at this window.” She did not turn her head, but continued to gaze out at the shroud of rain.

“Which blanket does my dear little girl want to snuggle up in?”

“You know,” the princess sighed. “In the fireplace one. On the wall in the Upper Hall. Uncle, order them. Let it be brought to me, and I will wrap myself up in it. And then let them bring me a cup of hot chocolate and a bun. I will sit at the window and watch the rain.”

“My girl, I’m afraid nothing can be done just now. At any rate, not before lunch.”

“Why, Uncle, why?” Thar-Agne was snivelling. “Why can’t a princess snuggle up in a blanket, order a cup of hot chocolate be brought her, and sit all day at the window? It’s such lovely rain. And not a princess, in fact, but an actual queen. That’s right, isn’t it, Uncle? You said so.”

“My dear girl. The blanket to which you refer is not in fact a blanket, but a tapestry and, believe it or not, an heirloom. It is over five hundred years old. Have some respect for your ancestors, who preserved it for so long. They did not snuggle up in it, and consequently it has hung there up to now.”

“You see! It has hung there, and now I can snuggle up in it! If they didn’t snuggle up in it, that just means they weren’t cold and miserable. Why can’t I snuggle up in it now?”

“Because people don’t snuggle up in tapestries.” The uncle hugged the princess to him. “Now we will go and get washed, then we will get dressed, then we will order a cup of hot chocolate be brought, and then we will go out for the audience.”

“I’m not leaving here!” the princess had begun snivelling still more. “They’ll just be saying stupid things and making scary threats all over again! Oh, they’re so bothersome! Uncle, let’s send them all to have their heads struck off.”

“Of course, my sweet. But only after we have got washed, and dressed, and had our breakfast.”

“Hot chocolate and a bun,” sighed Thar-Agne.

The uncle led the girl to the bathchamber, where he handed her over to a plump old woman who had been nanny to the girl since her very first day in this world. For a certain while the sounds of snivelling could be heard intermingled with the splash of water and groaning on account of the horrid tooth powder and the nasty soap (that always gets in your eyes) and the other hazards that you encounter when you are having a wash. They moved on from the bathchamber to a cosy little drawing room with a blazing fireplace, where a table had already been laid for breakfast with her favourite cup, her favourite saucer and her favourite spoon. Hot chocolate had been brought in, in an antique silver jug, along with a bun which the princess immediately sank her little pearly-white teeth into.

“What a tasty bun! Uncle, don’t let them send our chef to have his head struck off just yet. This is a really tasty bun!” Taking a sip of chocolate, the princess scrunched up her eyes. “This hot chocolate is so tasty, just marvellous! Don’t let them send our chef to have his head struck off just yet, Uncle.”

“Very well, my little one. Our chef has been making you porridge since before you could walk. He loves you very much, and we are not going to send him to have his head struck off.”

“That’s right!” the girl exclaimed. “Not just yet.” She sipped her chocolate and savoured her bun. When breakfast was over and done with, and the princess was wiping her lips and hands, her uncle set about the most difficult task.

“And now, my dear, we need to put on our cape and go out to the emissaries.”

“Aw-w...” The light that had been shining in her eyes during breakfast went out. It seemed to her uncle that it had grown darker in the room, and his heart grew heavy. He sighed, restrainedly.

“All the same, it’s raining outside, you can’t even go for a walk in the courtyard. Even if we took an umbrella, the biggest umbrella we have, you’d still get soaked. Trust me.”

“But I don’t mean to go for a walk and get soaked, Uncle,” the princess had begun whining again. “Neither in the gardens nor in the courtyard. I want to sit at my pretty window and watch the rain. It’s so nice to sit at my window when it’s raining and the fireplace is crackling. And with some hot chocolate, and with a bun.”

“Of course it is. And this afternoon you’ll be able to do just that. But now we need to go into the reception room and listen to what the emissaries have to say.”

“But the rain might stop this afternoon, mightn’t it?” the princess burst into tears. “And the emissaries will wait, if there’s something they’re after.”

The one thing that the uncle could not withstand was his niece’s tears, those drops of crystal that made her eyes even bluer, even more piercing. He went across to her, hugging her shoulders and drawing her in close, and repeated: “We need to go into the reception room and listen to what the emissaries have to say.”

“Well, if we must,” Thar-Agne sniffed, and rubbed at her eyes with her fist, “let us hear them out, and then order them to have their heads struck off. All of them. Can we, Uncle?”

“Of course we can, my dear girl,” her uncle gently pulled the princess up out of her armchair. “Of course we can.”

 

 

In the reception hall they were waiting patiently. The begilded emissaries were pacing up and down the gleaming parquet floor, and gazing up at the beautiful stucco ceiling. The hilts of their scimitars, crimson and gold, shone wickedly.

The princess appeared. She was clad in a lavish dress, a cape, and a crown that glittered with jewels. The crown had been made half a millennium ago. It had been made back then for precisely such occasions as these, when whoever was the monarch, if they were still a child, needed to show that they were, nonetheless, a force to be reckoned with. That crown had been used by a good few of Thar-Agne’s ancestors, and each one had been very happy with it. It suited the princess particularly well, it was inlaid with such wondrous, striking sapphires. And, as it happened, these had been mined from the very region which the wicked emissaries had come to try and take away.

The princess, paying no attention to the bows which greeted her arrival, climbed up onto her throne (which, it has to be said, was on the tall side for her), straightened her cape, and sat there, glowering. The chief emissary stepped forward and began rattling on about something, unfurling a scroll of paper that had been fastened by a huge seal.

“What did he say, Uncle, what did he say?” the princess turned her head to one side.

Her interpreter approached. “He’s saying that we should give them the Eastern mountains. Impudent sort, isn’t he?”

“Ugh, what a horrid man!” the girl exclaimed. “Why should we? Ask him, ask him!”

The question was translated and an answer received.

“He says that your ancestors seized these territories unlawfully. He has all the documents, that’s them, there... Silly, isn’t he?”

“And just what do they intend to do? If we don’t give them the Eastern mountains? Ask him, ask him!”

“Ah, what’s the point of asking?” said the interpreter, contemptuously. “They’ll declare war.”

“War?” the princess shuddered. “An actual war? Ask him, right now!”

When the emissary heard the princess’s question, at first he hesitated, and then he began rattling on again.

“No, what a monster!” The interpreter put his head in his hands.

“What did he say, what did he say?”

“He says that their forces are already gathered at our Eastern border. A huge army, several million strong, all armed with scimitars.”

“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” shouted the princess, and she even jumped down from her throne. “Uncle, how can that be? Several million scimitars! That’s such a scary pile! Where can they have got so many? Their country isn’t big enough to fit them all in!”

“My dear girl, it sometimes happens there can be many more scimitars than that. Alas, they are telling the truth. Our head of intelligence reported as much to me at yesterday’s council of state. You, my dear, must tell them that we have to study the documents. That we will need a week to consider.”

“Maybe we should send him to have his head struck off?” suggested the princess. “Then we won’t have to consider.”

“You see,” said her uncle, gently, “we’d still have to consider, even so.”

“There we go again, with the considering,” the princess sighed and clambered back up onto her throne. “Very well, Uncle. I love you very much, and so I will order him to wait.”

“Yes, my dear. Only, you need to suggest that he waits, you mustn’t order him in any way.”

“Whyever not?” exclaimed the girl, and the spark of her blue sapphires shone in tandem with the spark of her blue eyes. “I am a princess! Actually, I am a queen, didn’t you say so, Uncle? Why can’t I order him?”

“My dear,” the uncle also sighed. “Let’s talk about this later, and somewhere else. And, anyway, we have already talked about this I don’t know how many times.”

“Yes, and are we going to have to do it again? I don’t want to have any conversations! I don’t, I don’t! I want to give orders! Otherwise, what’s the point of being queen?”

“Very well,” the uncle nodded. “Order him to wait a week.”

“Tell him,” the princess glittered sapphire-blue as she span around to her interpreter, “that I order him to wait for a week.” The interpreter rattled away in the other language. The emissaries looked at one another and nodded. “Did you tell them the truth?” the princess shuffled uneasily in her seat. “Did you tell them that I was giving them an order?”

“No,” sniffled the interpreter, “I simply said that we would have to inspect the documents.”

“And you didn’t tell them that I was giving them an order? I have been tricked again!” The princess banged her fists on the arms of the throne. “Uncle! Why? Why have you all tricked me again? After all, you agreed, didn’t you? You shouldn’t have agreed, in that case!”

The uncle, who from the very start had been afraid that today’s encounter would not pass without someone falling victim, simply said: “My girl, you and I are going to have a talk... Later.”

“Again, you say later. Again, you say talk! I don’t want to talk, I don’t. I’m sick of it!”

The princess jumped down off the throne, stamped her foot, and turned to go.

“Where are you going, my dear?” asked her uncle, mildly.

“Tell them that I am going away to learn their stupid language. When I have, they can come back, and I will tell them everything myself. The truth. While you, you, and this includes you, Uncle, as well, you’re all horrid, horrid, horrid liars!” And the princess walked out.

Silence reigned. The emissaries, alarmed, awaited official clarification. “What should I say?” asked the interpreter, calmly.

“Tell them the truth.” The uncle turned to the emissaries with a sad smile.

“All right,” agreed the interpreter, after a moment’s thought. “I’ll say this. That Queen Thar-Agne has departed for the library, where she will be studying their language in order to have the opportunity to converse with them directly. And that I am retiring.” And he began.

 

 

Shortly after this, there occurred a shocking incident. Running back to her bedchamber, the princess cracked her forehead at full speed on the door frame. The resulting bang was so loud the warders at her door at first scattered in all directions. Her crown flew to the floor and, flashing blue sparks, span ringing along the cold tiles. The princess flew into her bedchamber and flung herself on the bed, rubbing her injured forehead.

“Ow, ow, ow!” she moaned, burying herself in her pillows. “Ow, it hurts! Ow, how dreadful! Uncle! Nanny! I would have done better to stay in the reception room! No, I did the right thing, I was right, I was right... Ow, it hurts! Ow, how dreadful! Uncle! Nanny! Ow, ow, ow!”

The sparks flashing in front of her eyes did not stop, the din in her ears did not abate, her head rang like the bell over the castle gates.

Her nanny came rushing in. She sent for the uncle and for the physician. Her uncle inspected the lump in silence, then stepped away into the corner, gazing at the scene of the tragedy in some distress. The physician proposed a great mass of modern medicaments, but the nanny brought a vial of some noxious-smelling ointment, which always salved the bumps and bruises of the restless princess. Thar-Agne was undressed and settled on the bed. The lump was treated with the ointment. It was suggested to the uncle and the worried warders that they may wish to depart. The physician remained with the nanny to keep watch at the head of the bed. The girl, now with a cold compress on her head, moaned, groaned, sighed, sobbed, and whined.

A rumour spread around the castle: the princess had split her head wide open and didn’t have long to live. The chef’s son came running into the bedchamber – clarification was needed on what to do with lunch, which was already steaming aromatically in the kitchen. When he had received the necessary instructions (“A crust of bread... And half a cup of chocolate... Assuming I don’t die,”) the chef’s son made his way back, and the old chef sighed with relief. Luncheon was served as had been demanded. (True enough, it did not pass without a bowl of vegetable soup also, and a bunch of the salad leaves which the old man used to buy himself, at a secret location.)

When the uncle could bring himself to take another look inside the bedchamber, there was no princess there: she had been led into her drawing room, where she was just finishing her lunch. The nanny, the physician and the chef were standing in a line and watching reverently as the princess finished up her bowl of fragrant soup and nibbled the last few salad leaf stems. The cold compress could be seen jutting up on her head – they had had to let down her hair because of it, and it fell freely across her shoulders.

The time came to change the cold compress. They moved the princess to sit nearer to the glowing hearth. She twisted and turned, trying to evade her nanny, who in turn was trying to apply the compress. This was close at hand, kept in a washtub that stood on a special table (which had been brought in at the orders of the physician). The nanny – a plump woman in a bonnet, an apron and a multiplicity of petticoats – was fussing over the unfortunate girl. “Ow, ow, ow, nanny! Oh, but it smarts!” whimpered Thar-Agne. “Ow, ow, ow! Oh, how it smarts! It does, it does!”

“Thar-Agne!” the nanny had lost patience. “Sit still and don’t move your head. You’ve gone and done yourself a mischief, and now you want your uncle to take the consequences, is that it? Turn this way, and don’t move a muscle.” The princess screwed her eyes shut and turned to face the old woman. The nanny slapped the cold compress over the lump on Thar-Agne’s head. “Oof!” Thar-Agne yelped and gave a start. “It’s cold! It smarts! It’s so cold and it smarts so much that it’s going to finally finish me off!”

“Stop fidgeting! You’ve been naughty, now sit and take your medicine, you obnoxious little hooligan.”

“I wasn’t being naughty! It just happened! But it’s not like you’re feeling sorry for me, you’re telling me off! You don’t really love me, do you? And yet you used to dandle me on your knees! What an awful, wretched, difficult day it’s been today! First they didn’t let me sit at the window and watch the rain. Then they didn’t allow me to order those horrid emissaries to clear off. And now I’m being tortured with cold compresses. If you want me to get better quicker, let me out to my bed. I’ll lie down, and it will all heal up, and don’t torment me with your compresses. Everyone’s lying to me, they want to take away my Eastern mountains, they’re just waiting for me to die.”

“You’re a wicked child, Thar-Agne! Do you see what happens when you don’t do what the grown-ups tell you? If you’d listened to your uncle, you wouldn’t be sitting here now with that cold compress on,” admonished her nanny, dabbing her plump rosy cheeks with a snow-white handkerchief.

“But why did he tell me not to give any orders, Nanny? After all, I am actually the queen in fact, am I not? If I want a thing to happen, I will give the order! If I don’t want it to, I won’t! Tell him, Nanny, tell him not to stop me giving orders.”

“I’ll tell him, I will. But you be a good girl and don’t make me all worried.”

“It’s all his fault! He stopped me sending the emissaries to have their heads struck off. I just knew that I wouldn’t get to. Oh, how I hate it all! Let me go, Nanny, I’m going to lie down. I’ve got a splitting headache, ringing in my ears and flashes before my eyes. I’ll be dead soon.”

“You have to listen to your elders!” her nanny had lost patience again. “Now your head will swell up into a bubble and you won’t even notice when those stupid people declare war on us. You could at least have spared a thought for your kingdom, even if you don’t care about yourself.”

The nanny gathered together the stuff she had been using to treat the girl and swept her way grandly out of the room. After tarrying for a moment, the physician also left the drawing-room. “Go and get some rest, my girl,” her uncle had come up to the chair where the princess was feeling sorry for herself. He patted her head and she snuggled up to him.

“Uncle... Why is life such a horrid thing? Why is everything so dreadful?”

“Does it hurt, my dear girl?”

“Dreadfully!” The princess tentatively touched her cold compress. “If I could only die quicker.”

“Go and get some rest.” Her uncle lifted her out of the chair and took her into the bedchamber. There he made sure that the girl lay down and drew the bedclothes over her, and he closed the curtains over the window to make it cosy, dark, and easier to get to sleep. “Promise me you’ll go to sleep straight away.”

“How should I know... And send whoever made the doors like that to have their head struck off. Promise me.”

“Of course. I shall order them to be opened three paces wide. Get some rest.”

Her uncle stroked his niece’s hair, which lay loose on her pillows, and went softly out of the room.

 

 

Her head was aching, and ringing, and buzzing – there was no way she could get to sleep. The princess tossed and turned, then turned and tossed, then tossed and turned some more. In the end, her cold compress came off and left a stain on her satin pillow. Thar-Agne crawled out of bed and put the compress on her bedside table, then made her way to the window and crawled under the curtain. She rested her injured forehead on the cold glass. “Wonderful,” she whispered, “I shall sit like this. Until I die.”

Then all of a sudden she had the thought that it was, all things considered, too soon for her to die, and she could go for a walk. She crossed over to her dressing room, fished out a cloak and some shoes, arrayed herself in them, and went out onto the small inner courtyard.

It was wonderful there. The rain had recently stopped. Pudgy wisps with grey bellies swam across the heavens. A soft breeze blew, not in the least bit cold. The garden was inundated with the fragrances – fresher than fresh – of herbs and flowers, joyous after the rain.

Thar-Agne decided that it would be distinctly premature to die, and stepped out along the neat paths. The flowers on each side smelled so nice, they were breathing out such sweet perfumes, that her headache began to fade. The princess wandered about, taking in the fragrances, and in the end she had sniffed so much in that her head began to buzz from quite a different cause: the scents.

At this point Thar-Agne sat down on a bench near the doors and began to gaze up at the heavens. The damp, torn, grey clouds were floating so low that they had swallowed the top of the tower.

There was a resonant silence, as always happens in small courtyards after the rain where there are drops of water squelching noisily down from the leaves into the puddles at the roots. The breeze had died away completely. Thar-Agne snuggled up in her cloak, which was soft, furry and warm, and she felt glorious (at least, as glorious as anyone could feel with a lump like that on their forehead). She looked around at her courtyard, at the damp, mossy walls and rooftops all about.

Suddenly, somewhere off to her right, there was a bang. The princess sprang to her feet and started to peer through the leaves that were studded with pearly rain drops. It was clear, someone had fallen off the wall! “Yikes!” exclaimed the girl in delighted horror. “Someone is prowling towards me! Someone wants to intrude upon me! And here I was, meaning to die!” She lifted the hem of her cloak and ran towards the sound. Once she had pushed her way through the leaves and got soaked by a waterfall of droplets, she ran over to the wall and made out a boy who was just beginning to raise himself up from the damp ground. On the boy’s back, hanging from a strap, there was a lute. The boy lifted his eyes to see the princess, and froze.

“Who are you?” asked the princess, trying with all her might to appear stern. “And why are you falling down from the wall, when you are carrying a lute? You might break it!”

“Nothing will happen to it,” said the boy. “Look, it’s not even spattered with mud.”

“You haven’t broken your leg?”

“No, why? Should I have? And anyway, I fell headfirst. I’d be more likely to break my neck. Why do you ask?”

“My uncle forbids me to jump from the walls. He says I might break my leg, and then I won’t even be allowed out of bed.”

“Don’t you like lying in bed?”

“I hate it. Why, do you like it? You should sleep in bed, not do anything else there. But what did you fall down to me for?” The princess finally made up her mind to approach a little closer. “Tell me, but be honest.”

“I came to see whether you had died or not,” the boy looked the princess right in the eye – hers were a dark fathomless blue here, in the half light under the damp tree.

“What am I to you? And why did you think that I should have died?”

“People were saying,” the boy replied, “that the emissaries from the East had slammed you into a door. So as to spare all the expense of going to war.”

“People say all kinds of things,” retorted the princess, angrily. “I’m sure they’ll want to slam me into a door when I order them all to have their heads struck off. But why do you have a lute, here, in my presence?”

“It’s always with me. I can’t leave it anywhere.”

“And do you sleep with it?”

“Of course,” and the boy patted the strap on his shoulder, “what else would I sleep with?”

“Where do you live?”

“In the tower.”

“Really? In this one?” Thar-Agne pointed at the clouds pierced by the tower. “How wonderful! Do you think I could come and visit you? I have never ever been in the tower!”

“Will your uncle let you away to visit? He’s a strict one you’ve got there, and no mistake. He makes you stand in the corner for three hours a day, and sometimes four.”

“Is that what people say?” the princess grew angry. “He does nothing of the sort! My uncle is the kindest uncle in the world. And also he’s the wonderfullest uncle in the world. And the very bestest. And if anyone says anything nasty about him, I will order him to have his head struck off.”

“Who’s ‘him’? Your uncle?”

“No, no, no!” cried the princess, and stamped her foot, sending up a little fountain of spray. “The one who says it, don’t tell me that wasn’t obvious. You’re not very clever, are you? Go and tell that to your people.”

“I’m not about to start telling anyone I’m not very clever. But if your uncle will let you go, come and visit me at night.”

“Why?” said the princess, in surprise.

“You know, from my window, you get such a marvellous view of the Moon!”

“I don’t know,” the princess had got upset again, and started to whine. “How would I know? I’ve never been in the tower, have I? I said so, didn’t I?” she sighed. “But what difference does it make, where you look at the Moon from? From here,” and she indicated the walls and leaves around her, “you can see it pretty well too, you know.”

“Ha,” sniffed the boy, scornfully, “you just haven’t seen it for yourself. And, anyway, there are places from where you can get such a good view of the Moon that even my window in the tower seems like nonsense.”

“Really?” the princess seized the boy by his damp sleeve. “And do you know these places?”

“Only one, if truth be told. But what a place it is. Oh, if only you knew.”

“I want to know! I want to see the Moon from that place, I do, I do! Show it to me, I’m ordering you!”

“It’s just that it’s not exactly close by. Do you know the forest on the mountain the other side of the river?”

“Really?” the princess gave a horrified shudder. “But that’s outside the castle, isn’t it? And I’ve never been outside the castle... How can we get there?”

“I know a secret passage,” said the boy. “It’s really not that hard to get out of the castle. I’ve got out scores of times, and got back in again, without anyone catching me.”

“Then let’s go and look at the Moon, right now!” Thar-Agne bounced up and down several times, and tugged at the boy’s sleeve.

“It won’t work out today,” he sighed. “Today I’ve got a rehearsal. In fact, I’ve got to go, now. You see, I only thought to catch a glimpse of you on the off-chance you were still alive. And then get straight to my rehearsal.”

“It was the right thing to do, too,” nodded the princess. “You should check everything for yourself. But this bump of mine hurts so badly! Do you know how much I am suffering? Oh, how I am suffering!” Thar-Agne moaned a little (not because her bump was hurting, but because the situation demanded it).

“That’s a nasty bump you have there,” said the boy, seriously. He carefully ran his fingers over it. “A bump like that will take a long time to heal. I bet they’re putting cold compresses on, aren’t they?”

“They certainly are. You can’t even imagine how much they smart!”

“Ha, I can imagine only too well. Last year, when I fell out of a beech tree and also cracked my head open – only, even worse and on the other side – they put these cold compresses on that nearly killed me. I could have died, and I would never have seen you.”

“What do you mean, have you been wanting to see me since last year? Why didn’t you come then, then? And why did you want to see me at all?”

“Because the first time I saw you was last year, when I got a position in the orchestra, and I liked you very much straight away.”

“Really? How wonderful! You’re the first person who has ever talked to me like that. But why?”

“Not telling... Though, actually, I don’t know.” The boy thought for a bit, and scratched his nose. “I liked you, and that’s that. I even composed some music for you.”

“Really?” In her delight and amazement, Thar-Agne bounced up and down and again sent the puddle under her feet splashing everywhere. “Play it for me, play it! I’m ordering you!”

“Not right now. Now I need to climb back up home. And also, if I start playing right here, the warders will catch me and send me to have my head struck off. Don’t tell me you didn’t know that?”

“I did know,” and yet again the princess grew upset. “But when will you come back? When will you perform your music for me? And when will we go and look at the Moon?”

“Let’s do it tomorrow,” said the boy, thoughtfully. “I don’t have any rehearsals tomorrow. I’ll come for you, and we’ll go and look at the Moon from that place I know.”

“How wonderful!” The princess clapped her hands and jumped up and down. Her eyes sparkled. “Wonderful! But when tomorrow?”

“In the evening, of course,” said the boy. “If you don’t have any important matters of state to attend to.”

“I won’t have! I will order them all to have their heads struck off. And will we go to look at the Moon? And will you perform your music for me?” Again she tugged at the boy’s sleeve.

“Yes. But now I have to go.”

The boy cautiously disentangled the princess from his sleeve and climbed up the creepers that spread across the wall, making his way up and out of view.

“If you don’t come, I will order you to have your head struck off!” shouted the princess after him. “Well, there we are,” and she finally broke down completely. “Again I’m alone, and no-one needs me.”

She returned to her bedchamber, sat down on an ottoman, and began to wait. Three minutes later she sprang up, went over to her settee and began to wait there. Three minutes after that she crossed over to her bed and continued to wait there, instead. But it was hopeless: a huge expanse of time remained until tomorrow evening. While tomorrow morning would again bring those awful people with their idiotic scimitars. She definitely had to send them all to have their heads struck off. She had had enough of them, the stupid idiots, she was at the end of her tether.

Dreaming of how wonderful it would be to send every last idiotic emissary to have their heads struck off, the princess fell asleep.

 

 

The next morning it was overcast, cold, and miserable again. The uncle made his way with a heavy heart to the bedchamber but – and such a thing had never happened before – the doors were locked from the inside! The warders simply shrugged their shoulders, absolving themselves from blame by the fact that no-one had approached the doors from the outside and that, anyway, the doors were locked from the inside.

“There’s something fishy going on here,” muttered the uncle to himself worriedly as he took an alternative route to reach the princess via her drawing room.

And he was right to be worried! The princess, who had woken that day an hour and a half or so earlier than normal, was in a state of utter despair. She had waited patiently for a whole hour for the evening to arrive and, she must be given her due, she had comported herself with dignity. She had not whined even once. The only thing she had done was to dip and sway about in front of her mirror, checking whether any of her remedy was left up top, and finding that there was now almost no reason left to be ashamed when looking at the Moon.

Then, when dawn had broken outside, Thar-Agne could bear it no longer, and she ran into the drawing-room, took down another heirloom from the wall – a spear (which was twice as high as she was tall) – returned into the bedchamber and launched an attack on her little pillows. Sobbing and sniffling, she thrust the spear into the pillows, and exclaimed when the spear tore into the shiny satin:

“Oh, why isn’t he here? Why hasn’t he come? But what if he doesn’t come at all? Then I shall send him to have his head struck off after all... But why doesn’t he come? Why, why?”

And again she was crying, and the spear went in to the soft belly of the pillows, and the down filling flew all around the room, settling on the bedclothes, the rugs, the ottomans, the settees and the princess.

Then the princess tossed the spear to one side and took to crawling on all fours across a rug – it was thick, and fluffy, and soft. She wailed, and sniffled, and gathered the down into a neat pile. “My pillows,” she whispered through blue-tinged tears, “my darling little, glorious little pillows... How will I manage without them now... Just what have I done?.. What a dreadful stupid idiot I am... My darling little, glorious little pillows...”

And that was the extent of the despair in which the uncle found the princess. She was sitting in the middle of the bed-chamber, and what wasn’t tears was damp fluff. The wrecked pillows were to be found in a neat pile to her left, while the down, carefully gathered (at least, as carefully as she had been able), was to her right. The princess, sobbing, sniffling, and wiping her eyes, was trying to stuff the down back in. The terrible spear had been leaned against the wall in the corner.

Her uncle took in the devastation, went across to the unhappy princess, and squatted down. “Here, my dear girl, let me assist you.” He began to help the princess stuff the down back into the pillows. She broke down into uncontrollable wailing and flung herself onto her uncle’s shoulder.

“Uncle,” she groaned on his shoulder, “I love you so very, very, very much! Order them to fix my pillows! Why did I cut them up with the spear? My darling little, glorious little pillows... Uncle, you order them...”

“I will,” her uncle hugged the princess to him and stroked her unbraided hair. “I’ll give the order now, and they will bring us twenty new pillows. And they will be even finer than the ones you cut up...”

“Yes, Uncle, yes. I’m a bad girl, a foolish child... They should send me to have my head struck off, Uncle.”

“You scared me ever so much, my little one! Does your head still hurt?”

“No, Uncle,” the princess wiped her fist across her eyes, and sighed. “My head hardly hurts at all, now. It just buzzes, and there is ringing in my ears, and crackles, but it doesn’t hurt, much. I could even manage a little breakfast. Yes, I could even manage a little breakfast. They might bring me a cup of tasty chocolate. And half a bun. No, a whole bun, in fact.”

“We shall organise that now. But, tell me, why have you been crying so hard? Why have you ripped open all your pillows? They were your favourites, too! You’ve been sleeping on them since you were this high!” Her uncle held his hand just above the floor.

“You don’t need to tell me, Uncle, you don’t need to tell me! I know. But he didn’t come, and now we won’t go and see the Moon.”

“And when was he supposed to come?” asked her uncle, perplexed.

“He said towards evening...”

“I see... But there is still some time left before evening, my girl. He still has time, and he probably will come. That is, of course, if you didn’t promise to send him to have his head struck off.”

“I did promise, Uncle, I did,” the princess gave a bitter sigh. “But only if he didn’t come... And if he does come, why would I?..”

“I see... But tell me, my glorious child, this ‘he’ – is who?”

“How should I know?” muttered the girl, shrugging her shoulders. “And what difference does it make?”

“Don’t you even know his name?”

“No, I don’t!”

“That’s not good, my dear. If we knew his name, I could find him and bring him.”

“No, let him come himself, now that he promised! Enough, Uncle, leave me be, leave me be... Tell them to bring some pillows, and tell them to take away that rotten spear. Tell them to throw it away, in fact! Or can’t we throw that away, either? Why can’t we ever throw anything away? There’s all sorts of rubbish piled up, it gets in the way, it’s suffocating.”

“I’ll be on my way,” her uncle gingerly extricated himself from the princess, and stood up. “But, for now, you should get washed and dressed, and have your breakfast, because yesterday we...”

“I’m not going anywhere!” said the girl suddenly, so firmly and clearly that her uncle shuddered. She lifted her head and fixed her blue gaze on him. She looked at him for a long time, with her unruly hair stuck to her tearstained cheeks, then sniffled, wiped her eyes with the palms of her hands, stood up, made her way to the bed and lay down, burying her face into a muddle of bedclothes. “I shall lie here until I die. Or until he comes. And just for once would you order those idiot emissaries to be sent to have their heads struck off? All of them. And tell them there are to be no more audiences.”

Her uncle went wordlessly out of the bedchamber.

 

 

For all that difficult, stupid, tedious day, the princess did not once leave her bedchamber. She lay on her bed, not lifting her face from her pillow, not saying a word, just sighing and occasionally crying quietly. The day went by, and yet he still did not appear; even when it became the afternoon, he still did not come. They called the princess to breakfast, to lunch, and to dinner, but each time she replied that she didn’t want anything, apart from them to send everyone to have their heads struck off and leave her, for once, in peace.

The evening came, cold, windy, and unsettled. The princess, wrapped up in her blanket, went over to the window and looked out at the inclement weather.

“Well, I don’t care anyway,” she whispered, pressing her aching forehead to the glass. “I don’t care, I don’t, I don’t! I don’t care that the Moon’s not visible. He hasn’t come anyway. I shall tell my uncle, and he will order a search. Then I shall send him to have his head struck off, and then some! I am evil, I am grim, I am dreadful, I am bloodthirsty, I am cruel, I am dark, I am merciless, I am inhuman... He shall know what it means to torment me.”

And she sniffled, and wept, and the tears trickled down her cheeks...

Then she wandered around the room, not noticing the servants who had come in to extinguish the fires. Then she changed into her favourite nightgown, the one which was shiny, and light, and soft, and had little blue dragons around the hem. Then she lay down on her new pillows, she hugged them, and she started crying again.

Then she lay for a long time, not shutting her eyes. Then the clock on the drawing-room mantle-piece struck ten. Then, half-past ten. Then, half-past eleven, and the time had come to die.

Thar-Agne sighed, tossed and turned, sniffled, wiped her eyes, touched the lump on her forehead that was closing over. And, finally, she began to lose the battle, to fall asleep.

Then, all of a sudden, something very strange happened.

In the air vent in the wall below the ceiling, something made a noise. The vent’s prettily-patterned cover fell off and fell gently onto the thick rug below. This formed an opening, out of which fell something that was not very big. It was grey, mysterious, and terribly dusty. It smacked down after the cover, and began to sneeze!

The princess yelped, sprang up on her bed, grabbed a blanket and hid behind it. The grey, dusty, sneezing thing began to turn around. Finally, it did. The boy emerged in the middle of the bedchamber, and on his back he carried his lute. “You came!” exclaimed the princess in a whisper. “You came, you did, you did!”

“Well, yes, I did. I thought we’d agreed?”

“I’ve been waiting for you since the morning! But you never came!”

“But I told you I’d come in the evening.”

“Well, so what! What if you’d have come earlier?”

“Hm... I would have come earlier, only I had to take a roundabout route. You have such grim warders all around the place. They threaten to send everyone to have their heads struck off.”

“Of course they do!” shouted Thar-Agne happily, jumping down off the bed and running up to the boy. “What’s your name?”

“They call me Vedd-the-musician. You can call me just Vedde.”

“Excellent! Do you know what my name is?”

“I’m going to call you Agne.”

“Excellent! But, Vedde, how are we going to see the Moon? Have you seen how cloudy it is? Those horrid clouds have eaten up the Moon, what are we going to do?”

“Where we’re going,” said Vedde, “you can always see the Moon. Don’t worry.”

He looked closely at the princess; Thar-Agne was standing next to him, in her nightgown, with eyes that glittered in the half-light.

“It’s damp and cold there, Agne. Have you got a warm jacket?”

“How will we get there? Are you saying we have to climb in there?” the girl indicated the air vent.

“Yes. Put some warm clothes on.”

Thar-Agne ran into her dressing room and brought out her favourite fur cape – long, soft, and sparkling.

“No,” said Vedde, inspecting the cape and testing the material. “It will get stained and ripped in there. Any kind of old rags will do, dirty ones if possible.”

“But what about the Moon? How can I look at the Moon wearing dirty rags?”

“The Moon won’t mind. It understands.”

“But I don’t have any dirty rags to wear...” Thar-Agne was about to get upset again, but Vedde put his hand on her shoulder.

“I thought as much. And I brought this with me.” He brought out a wrinkled sack he’d stuffed down his shirt-front. It turned out there was a jacket in the sack – it was old, well-worn, much-repaired, but it was still strong and quite warm enough to keep the little princess from the chill of the dank night.

“Of course,” grumbled the girl, inspecting the marvellous garment, “I don’t have such a brilliant jacket as this! And I don’t have a sack like that even more. If any were to set up home here, my uncle would insist on throwing them out, that’s for sure. But he wouldn’t dream of throwing out any of this old junk! This spear can’t be thrown away, that stupid vase in the corner also can’t be thrown away... Do you know how much it drives me crazy? I’d give anything to find the person who made it, and send them to have their head struck off. I’d settle for the person who brought it in here. But both of them would be better.”

“Why don’t you get dressed?” Vedde held the jacket for her. “In you get.”

Thar-Agne put the jacket on.

“What a brilliant jacket! It’s so cosy! I want to order one just like it for me.”

“That’s my old jacket. I was wearing it the first time I saw you, you caught my eye in that straight away. I mean, I was in that, and you caught my eye.”

Thar-Agne stroked the jacket.

“Now this,” Vedde held open the sack.

“What do you mean?” said Thar-Agne, in fright. “Get in the sack? Whatever for?”

“It’s very dusty in there. If you don’t put the sack on, your hair will turn into a chimney brush and your nightgown will be fit for nothing more than a floorcloth. And anyway, a princess didn’t ought to be dusty. In my opinion, I shouldn’t need to explain that.”

“Oh all right, all right, all right. I’ll put your frightful sack on. Only, how am I supposed to see in there? What if I lose my way down the wrong turning? What if I fall out somewhere and get lost forever? What about the Moon?”

“I’ll make sure that everything is all right,” said Vedde. “Come on, put the sack on, and I’ll shove you up into the air vent.”

The princess scrupulously put on the sack. Vedde stacked up three ottomans, climbed up onto them himself, took hold of the princess, lifted her up and popped her into the passageway. Then he held his own sack in his teeth, caught hold of the edge with his hands, stretched up, climbed in, put his sack on, and called out: “How is it?”

“Miserable,” confessed the princess from inside her sack. “It’s prickly. And there’s a seam or something digging into my back.”

“Put up with it. We need to see the Moon. And to see the Moon, you often need to put up with some unpleasantness. Now I’m going to drag you along. You lie in your sack as you are, and don’t worry.”

“Well, go on, then, get dragging! The Moon will go, it’s not as though it’s going to wait for us!”

“Don’t worry, today it will wait for us.” He pulled the bundle with the princess in along after himself. Thar-Agne endured the torment courageously, and even tried not to complain (it turns out that being dragged along a pipe inside a sack is really not all that pleasant). Dust was getting inside the sack, and the girl was constantly sneezing. Vedde was trying to drag the young queen along with all possible regal comfort, but once Thar-Agne bashed herself so hard that she actually shrieked. “What’s the matter?” asked Vedde. “Did you bash yourself?”

“My poor bump,” whimpered the girl. “My bump! It hurts awfully! It was closing over, it was healing up, and now it all counts for nothing... How am I supposed to see the Moon with a lump on my head?”

“Don’t worry,” said Vedde, “it’s fine. Didn’t I say to you that often you don’t even notice the Moon if you haven’t got a bump? Anyway, there’s only a little way left to go.” Vedde dragged the princess in her sack along a little more, and tumbled through a hole. “I fell!” he told her, from below. “Stay there, don’t move.”

“You haven’t broken your lute, have you?” exclaimed the princess, in reply. “How are you going to play me music if you have?”

“Nothing will happen to my lute, don’t worry about that. Now, I’m going to make my way back up to you and let you out, and then we’ll make our way down by rope. Do you know how to climb down a rope?”

“I’m not sure,” said the princess, at a loss, “I’ve never climbed down a rope before. What do I need to do?”

“You need to try. I’m coming up.” Vedde climbed up towards the hole and back into the pipe, undid the princess and helped her out of the sack.

“Hold on to me. Hug me round the neck, maybe.”

The girl did just that. They made their way safely down, and Vedde took a small lamp from his pocket. The beam danced over indistinct objects. “Where are we?” The princess caught tight hold of the boy’s elbow.

“This is the old kitchen. It was already closed before you were born – me, too, for that matter – because the floors had begun to get damp.” The lamplight picked cauldrons, frying pans and saucepans out of the darkness – huge, black, and scary. “Agne, follow me! Don’t hang back, it’s easy to get lost round here.”

They crossed through into an unknown room. In the middle there stood a big wooden block. All around there were blackened bones, rusty hooks, cleavers and axes.

“What is that, Vedde?” asked the princess, when the beam of light stopped on a huge knife. “That thing, there. What is it?”

Vedde bent over and picked it up.

“It’s a butcher’s knife.” He handed it to the girl, and she took it with trembling fingers.

“And what’s this, that’s on it? It’s black, and sticky, and disgusting?”

“It’s blood. Only down here, in this damp cellar, it’s congealed into something horrid. But it used to be blood.”

“Real blood?” The princess grew so pale that even in the glimmer of the lamp it was clear to see.

“They used to butcher the animals here. All sorts: cows, pigs, sheep, so that the kitchens could use the meat in the dishes they cooked.”

“With this same knife?” The princess was in a state of complete horror.

“Well, yes. They would be cut up into many pieces. And the bones would crunch loudly.”

“All with this knife, you mean...” The princess inspected the metal thing in her hand in agitation. “And would the blood would go spraying out to the sides? Yikes! What did you give it to me for! What a horrid, beastly, disgusting knife!” The princess let go. The rusty knife fell to the floor with a dull clang. “Let’s get out of here right now, Vedde. Come on, right now. Right now. Right now! Let’s get out of here. This is a bad place, I really don’t like it here. Just think, in our glorious, cosy old castle there are places like this!”

“Ha,” Vedde gave a gloomy chuckle. “You can’t even begin to imagine what sort of places there are in our castle. We’re going to have to pass through one of them.”

“Really?” The princess caught tight hold of the boy’s elbow. “Then let’s get across it as soon as we can and we’ll run and see the Moon!”

“All right. Hold my hand.”

He took her hot little hand, and they left that horrible room. They walked for a long time. They descended some slippery stairs, opened some rotten doors, and crawled through some airless holes. The boy fearlessly hacked through the gloom with the lamplight, and the princess, alongside him and holding his hand, did not feel at all fearful. When Vedde needed some time to get a door open, Thar-Agne even decided to go for a bit of a walk. “I’m going for a walk around, Vedde, all right? Just a little one. Just while you’re getting the door open. Is that all right, just a little bit?”

“Just don’t go far. I’m telling you, it’s easy to get lost in here. If anything should happen, shout straight away.”

“Of course! Only, I’d do better to shout before anything happens.”

“No you wouldn’t. Better to shout when it happens.”

“But how can I shout if something happens? What if it happens and I can’t shout?”

“Well, just try. Shouting if something happens, that’s the tried-and-tested way.”

“Oh, all right, all right. I will try and shout only if anything happens. And I won’t beforehand. If I can. Right, I’m off. Will you call me, Vedde?”

The princess took three cautious little steps to the side. Then three more, followed by another three, and only her jacket was visible, and only just, at that, in the glimmer of the lamplight. She came back after a minute, holding an enormous rat by the tail. The rat was hanging upside-down, twisting and thrashing about, trying to reach the fist that was holding it. The black flashes of its eyes glittered in the darkness, the rat was really not enjoying being treated like this. (She might have been a queen, but more than likely she wouldn’t have liked it if she had been caught and carried hanging upside-down from her tail.)

“Look, Vedde!” The princess triumphantly presented the rat. “Look, what a darling! What a marvellous creature! Look at its little paws, and its little eyes and ears, its cute whiskers and tail! And it’s ever so soft, and rather furry. Look, what a magnificent creature! Do you see, not everything is so awful in the castle!”

“You’re tormenting the poor animal,” replied the boy, disapprovingly. “It’s hanging upside-down, it’s uncomfortable, and it hates it.”

“What is it, Vedde? What sort of animal is it? I want to get one of my own! I will order them to get me one just like it! It will be my friend, I will stroke it and look after it. I will feed it. It’s so marvellous! But what is it, Vedde, what?”

“It’s a rat,” said the boy, as he finally got the bolt open.

“A rat?” said Thar-Agne, confused. “This thing is actually a rat? Yikes!” She shuddered, and stretched the hand holding the rat as far away from herself as it would go. “I’m scared! Save me, Vedde! It’s a rat!” She let go. The rat plopped down onto the floor, squeaked, and scurried away. Thar-Agne flung herself at the boy, seized hold of him, and buried her face in his chest. “Save me, Vedde! Save me, it’s a rat!”

“We need to get going.”

The princess held the boy’s hand, and they set off. They walked for a long time. Again they descended stairs, again they opened doors, again they crawled through holes. It was getting colder and colder. Presently, Vedde stopped before a low door set into a damp wall. “Look,” he said, and he shone the lamp through the door.

Within, the princess made out some bones lying on a pile of something rotten. She gazed at the heap of bones for a long time, and then she asked: “What is it, Vedde? Did they used to butcher animals here, too? But if so, what was the chain for? So that they wouldn’t run away? What is it, Vedde?”

“A skeleton,” said the boy, in a hollow tone. “That poor unfortunate died in this dungeon, and no-one bothered to bring them out, or even give them a decent burial. Can you see the skull? And there, look, there are the ribs.”

“Do you know what, Vedde?” said Thar-Agne slowly. “I don’t ever want to come here again.” She squeezed the boy’s hand so hard it hurt. “Let’s get out of here right now, and let’s not come back here ever again. Why is it, that to see the Moon and to listen to music, you need to walk a path like this? Tell me, Vedde, maybe there’s another way? One that’s not so dreadful?”

“I don’t know,” said Vedde, thoughtfully. “Let’s go. And don’t look over there any more.”

“Vedde,” whispered the princess, “do you know where people get their heads chopped off?”

“People don’t get their heads chopped off these days,” the boy reassured her. “These days they get hanged, or shot, or poisoned with something, or smothered. But in the old days, yes, heads used to roll. Heads were usually chopped off in town squares, so that everyone could watch, and enjoy themselves.”

“Tell me, Vedde,” whispered the princess, and turned her head away from that dreadful door. “When a head gets chopped off, does the blood spray out everywhere?”

“Ha,” laughed the boy, unkindly. “When a head gets chopped off, the blood comes gushing out of the neck like a fountain.”

“Have you ever seen it?” The eyes of the princess flashed blue lightning.

“No. The physician told me that there are special veins in our neck which all the blood that we have flows through. And that if a head gets chopped off, this blood flows so powerfully through there that it immediately starts to spurt out. Until it’s all gone and there’s none left.”

“And what about,” whispered the princess, “if it’s winter, and all the blood goes on the snow? The hot, red blood, on the cold, white snow?”

“That’s not the half of it! The snow melts, and the head rolls through the snow, too, and spatters it with blood. And the body jerks and twitches, but not for long.”

“And people watch this, and enjoy themselves?”

“The whole square.”

“I shall order all of them to have their heads struck off, all of them, all of them! So that no-one watches and enjoys themself! How terrible, how horrible, how vile!”

“Don’t get so worked up,” Vedde patted the girl’s shoulder. “This was a long time ago, in the olden days. These days no-one gets their head chopped off, I told you.”

“So how do people enjoy themselves, then?”

“Ha,” the boy chuckled scornfully. “They find ways. We need to go, Agne.”

“Don’t let’s ever come here again!” exclaimed the princess, tugging at Vedde’s arm.

“But what if you want to see the Moon again?”

“Maybe we could look for a different route?” asked the girl, softly, and tears shone in her eyes. “I’ll bet there are many ways to the Moon, aren’t there? There can’t just be one, can there? Not one as scary as that?”

“Of course not. There are many different things in the world. Some things there should only be one of, like the Moon. But there are some things which there should be a lot of, like paths to the Moon. At the moment, I only know this one, and I’ve shown it to you. But in general, or so I think at least, every person has their own path to the Moon.”

“Well, yes,” sighed Thar-Agne. “Just imagine if not, how crowded with people it would be here. But it’s not just us that want to look at the Moon, is it?”

“Oh, no,” Vedde shook his head. “Not even close. Here are a few for starters: musicians, people I know. They simply have to look at the Moon from time to time. Otherwise they fall ill, and they can’t compose any music.”

“So, do they die of it, then?” They set out on their way again.

“Many do,” said Vedde, slashing through the gloom with the lamplight.

“But how can it be that everyone can look at the Moon... So many people look at the Moon, but is there enough of it to go round?”

“Do you know, Agne, recently I’ve been thinking that if we really were to divide the Moon up among everyone, then of course there wouldn’t be enough to go round.”

“How do you mean?” The princess was barely keeping up with the boy.

“It’s like this... The Moon is made so that it doesn’t matter at all how many people see it. And everyone can, each in turn. But to really gaze upon it, properly... Well, not everyone can. Take this lad I know. He’s not exactly blind, but there is something wrong with his eyes. He gets red and green mixed up.”

“How come?”

“I don’t know. The physician says that it’s not a problem, really, and many people are like that. They’re not even considered to be ill. Well, anyway, just you try and explain to him how he should gather wild strawberries in the forest. He won’t be able to make out the red colour against the green leaves.”

“Really?” The princess stopped. “He’d starve!”

“It’s like that with the Moon. You can look at it until you burst. But if you don’t know how to see the colour silver, you’ll never understand why the Moon is so beautiful. So don’t worry, the Moon will last a good long time yet. Here we are.”

They turned into a kind of opening and began to climb up a stairway. Then Vedde kicked open a door and they went through into a passageway. They set out along it – it smelled of damp earth, fresh leaves, and a gentle breeze was blowing – and emerged into the dank night.

 

 

The passageway had led them out onto the river bank. It was cold and damp. Leaves rustled in the breeze, and water softly splashed.

“Where are we?” The princess looked about her with delighted horror. “It’s the river! Are we there yet?”

“Not yet. But we’ve already made it out of the castle.”

“Out of the castle?! I’ve never been out of the castle before! My uncle says that I have no business to be going outside of the castle, that it’s nothing like they write in books. He says that there is plenty of time yet for me to go out of the castle.”

They splashed their hands in the water, and then Vedde pointed to the skies: “If the Moon had risen, we’d see the castle in its rays. Do you know how beautiful it looks! At night it is all airy, as though it has been woven from silver thread. It’s as if the Moon was tracing them, when it lights up the roofs and parapets, the embrasures and spires. And my tower looks particularly wonderful. And especially when the Moon hangs right above it. It’s like a huge silver lamp that illuminates the castle and the forest. And if there are clouds, it’s as though they were silver-fringed ghosts. And the trees, meanwhile, are like bars of silver. And the sky is so dark and fathomless, speckled with stars, and it’s all so peaceful and clear, it’s wonderful! It all looks so cosy, especially when the castle windows glow orange.”

“I want to see that!” Thar-Agne bounced with excitement. “Vedde, take me with you next time! When it will be just like you said! When they suspend the Moon over your tower and the windows will glow orange! Take me with you, Vedde, oh, please! I’ll even walk that same path again, and wrap up in your dusty sack, and I won’t catch any rats... And if I have to, I’ll look at the bones... But you have to take me with you!”

“Very well!” Vedde nodded. “But now, we need to go. There’s not long left, it isn’t far now.”

“What liars they are, though,” said the princess, after some thought. She was hurrying after Vedde, skipping along the pebbles on the river bank. “After all, my uncle knew how wonderful it is outside the castle. He’d actually seen it. He does go out of the castle, doesn’t he?”

“You just don’t know what there is outside of the castle. But he does know, and he probably thinks that you wouldn’t like it. He’s good to you really, even if he does make you stand in the corner for four hours at a time.”

“Look, I’ve told you already, he doesn’t make me stand in the corner... Your people are lying. They all lie, they’re all frauds,” the princess sighed.

They walked on, and the water murmured and the wind rustled in the trees. And the branches arched over the river while drops fell from the leaves and splashed, and it was quiet and fresh and wondrous. Then Vedde turned off from the river bank into the forest, and they walked along a path, occasionally stumbling over a tree root.

The path headed off up the mountain, they were climbing for a long time and the princess was growing tired of waiting – when would they ever get to see the Moon, and when was Vedde ever going to play his music for her? It seemed to her that morning was breaking, that the Moon had hidden for the day, that today, like every other day, nothing was going to happen. And then, suddenly!

The forest ended. They came out onto the top of the hill. The grass was soft, and silky, and caressing, it cheerfully spread itself under their feet. Ahead of them, the hillside sloped down, and below it spilled, or, rather, flooded, or, rather, cascaded a marvellous silvery world!

The clouds had drawn back, and there, in a black clearing in the heavens, was the Moon, at last! It tranquilly lit the cold chasm with a chill radiance. A silvery light flowed out, infused with liquid night. The scent was indescribable, it was the scent of the Moon, the scent of tranquil silver light. The princess stood stock-still, for fear of frightening away even the slightest drop of the Moon’s scent, even the tiniest silver Moonbeam.

The world, arrayed before their feet, lay there and shone serenely. Clouds sailed around, protecting the Moon from any disturbance. Vedde took his lute down from his shoulder, touched his fingers to the strings in concentration, and began to play, while the princess stood, and looked, and listened.

The music was short and simple, just a pair of chords and a handful of notes, but it was so silvery, so crystalline, so Moonlike! It was damp, like the heavens; it was cool, like the grass; it was fathomless, like the whole world, its warm lights cosily twinkling in the night. It was all quite wonderful! The princess stood, and she looked, and she listened, not moving, not breathing, not thinking of anything. (To think, just then, was not to be countenanced – it was necessary simply to look, and to listen, and to breathe in the scent of the Moon, and to feel the play of the Moonlight... Because it would never happen like that to her again.)

Vedde finished playing, and said: “This music has no name. It just gets played, that’s all there is to it. What did you think?”

“I liked it very much! Very, very, very much! It is really good music! Only, can I ask you something, Vedde? Would you not ever play it for anyone else? Because it should only be played here, to me. Is that all right?”

“But, you see, it was you that I made it up for,” said Vedde, seriously. “And for when the Moon would be like this. If I was to play that music to someone else, and in a different place to boot, it would be ruined.”

“That’s right! So don’t you play it to anyone else, or anywhere else.” Thar-Agne took the boy’s hand. “Don’t even play it to me, if there isn’t a Moon like this. I don’t want such good music to be ruined. Of course, it’s a pity that we can’t capture it and take it home, and then listen to it now and then. But we can’t do that, can we, Vedde? Can we?”

“That’s right, we can’t.” The boy nodded in agreement and slung the lute back over his shoulder. “You can’t capture that particular Moon and take it home, now, can you?” He looked up at the sky. “Of course, I could play it to you in the castle. But what would be the point? After all, you never get a Moon like that inside the castle.”

They went into the forest and headed down the hill, leaving the Moon at the top.

 

 

“Let’s have one more breath of this air, and then head back. It’s the middle of the night already, we need to sleep.” Vedde turned away from the entrance to the underground passages, and took a deep breath in. Thar-Agne took a few breaths herself, concentrating as she did so, and before she dived back into the stuffy air underground, she said: “You know, Vedde, I am going to order them to arrange a Moon like that in the castle, all the same. Let everyone see it. After all, didn’t you say that the Moon won’t mind even if everyone looks at it?”

“Ha,” said the boy, scornfully, “what they needed to do from the very start was to arrange the castle so that the Moon could be seen from it. It’s too late now. Even from the very top of the tower, you can’t see the Moon so clearly, can you?”

“You’re right,” sighed the princess. “I wonder, does my uncle know that the Moon can be sometimes seen as clearly as that?”

“I think he knows,” nodded Vedde.

“Really?” Thar-Agne was horrified. “So does that mean that he too climbed into a sack, and held a knife in his hands, and looked at those scary bones? So that he could see the Moon?”

They went into the passageway and plunged into the gloom.

“I’m not sure about the sack, but he has held a knife and he has seen a mound of bones.”

“Ah, I don’t want any bones. I don’t, I don’t, I don’t. Not bones, and not knives, either. I wish they wouldn’t ever be there, Vedde, I wish they would be abolished. I’ll give an order, and they will abolish them, just let them try not to!”

“Ha. It would be good if everything could be solved so easily.”

“I’m still going to give the order! And if they don’t abolish them, I will order them all to be sent to have their heads struck off.”

And they took the route back, and did not speak anymore. They passed back through the scary corridors with the dungeons where the bones lay; they passed back through the scary room where the animals used to be butchered; they passed back through the scary kitchen with the cauldrons and frying pans and saucepans. And Vedde put the princess back into the sack and shoved her back into the opening and back along the air vent until they fell back out into her bedchamber, and he pulled the princess back out of the sack and they both spent a long time sneezing on the clean rug.

“All right, then,” said the boy, at last. “Now it’s time for you to go to bed. I’ll tuck you in, and you’ll sleep. How’s the bump on your head?”

“It hurts a little, but it’s almost nothing, now,” replied the princess, curling up into a ball. “I wonder if maybe perhaps I should sleep a little? Again, tomorrow, my uncle will come with those emissaries of his. I am so fed up with them! Vedde, save me from the emissaries. I want the Moon, and I want music, and I don’t want those stupid emissaries with their scimitars. Save me, Vedde.”

Vedde sat by the head of the bed and plumped up the pillows so that it would be comfier, and cosier, and softer for the princess to sleep in.

“I’ve had such a good time, Vedde!” murmured the girl, already falling asleep. “It’s so wonderful that you came... You showed me the Moon and played me your music... Will you come again, is that all right? Promise me...”

“Of course I will. When I don’t have a rehearsal in the evening, I normally don’t have anything to do.”

“In that case, come to me, put me in a sack and drag me... Wherever you want... As long as it’s out of this castle... I had such a good time... Will you come?”

“Hm,” said the boy, thoughtfully, sitting at the head of the bed, “I could show you such wonderful places!”

“So you promise, all right?.. Promise me...”

Suddenly, the princess opened her eyes, and they flashed blue fire in the glimmer of the night-lights. “Vedde, let’s run away! You know such wonderful places! Let’s run away and live there! Let’s run away, oh, let’s, let’s!” She half-rose on the bed.

“No, Agne. It’s best not to spend all your time in places like that. You do need to spend some time in such places. Yes, you need to do that, you have to. But you can also live in the castle. It’s not actually that bad, you know.” Vedde again laid the princess down, and again he tucked in her blanket. “So get some sleep. It’s late already.”

“But still, let’s run away... Somewhere, at least... You promise, all right?.. You promise, don’t you.. Let’s run away... Just a little bit...”

She fell asleep.

 

 

The Last of the Eastern Dragons

Translated from Russian by Ian Appleby

 

The hurricane raged all night. It was scary to get too near the doors and windows: shutters rattled, ragged curtains thrashed against walls and slates hailed down from the roof. Towards morning, the hurricane blew itself out, the clouds brightened up, and the sun rose over the battered town. The streets, usually so spick and span, were unrecognisable: shop signs lay forlorn in puddles, all jumbled together with tree branches, weathervanes and smashed tiles. Broken glass glittered in window frames. Shutters hung from bent hinges. The town watchmen had come out to stand guard over beaten-down doors.

Breathless children gathered at the school, every one of them bursting to recount the adventures that had befallen them along with the hurricane. At one house, the wagon had been smashed to smithereens; at another, all the old junk in the attic had come crashing down (revealing a trove of marvellous curiosities); at yet another, the very roof had been blown off. Classes had already begun, but a good half of the children had yet to arrive. Nonetheless, the teachers were not angry. Children constantly came running in, chattering about the bridge that had collapsed into the river. All the boats, every last one, had been blown out to sea, and so, to get the children to school, they’d quickly had to knock together a raft.

The children who lived down by the docks came rushing in and began to report that the ships which had sailed out to sea so as not to be smashed up against the shore were returning with torn sails and some even with broken masts. Classes were drawing to an end, and it had become clear that many of the schoolchildren were not going to arrive at all. Closer to mid-day than the morning, Leyesso burst into the classroom. She was a girl from the other side of the river, the miller’s daughter. She greeted her teacher, who met her with tolerance, and then she ran across to the window, where she shared a desk with Tooba, the armourer’s apprentice. Once she had caught her breath, she whispered:

“Tooba! Guess what! There’s a young dragon hiding in our shed, right now! They were flying, and he was brought down by the gale! He’s in our shed, and he doesn’t know how he’s going to get back home now!

“Really?!” Tooba almost jumped out of his seat. “Didn’t anyone spot him?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know! I hid him there, among some sacks. I only just had chance to ask what had happened to him. I had to run for school. He said that he didn’t know how he was going to make it back home now. And that, anyway, young dragons shouldn’t fly by themselves, because they haven’t developed the sense that dragons use to find their way yet. And that he’s an orphan, that his parents were shot down by magic arrows when he was just a baby. He had been to the Islands with his grandfather, they were flying home, and they were caught in our hurricane. And it blew him down right into our backyard, just before daybreak.”

“Oh, can’t these lessons be over any quicker?” Tooba could hardly contain his excitement. “The main thing is to make sure no-one finds out, otherwise they’ll be all over him! Mind you, we’ll need to tell Miopa all about it. He’ll think of something. We can trust him, and he knows everyone.”

“All right,” Leyesso nodded, “let’s tell Miopa. You know what? I don’t even know what to feed him! After all, I’ve never had a young dragon before. And most likely he’s hungry.”

“You bet,” Tooba could scarcely sit still. “You’d be hungry too, after something like that. Has he broken anything? He must have come down with a real bang!”

Finally, the classes ended. Leyesso and Tooba took Miopa to one side and started talking at him agitatedly.

“Listen to this, Miopa, only you’ve to promise not to tell anyone!”

“Promise! No-one! Cross your heart!”

“Not a soul! It’s really important!”

“Promise! Not a word! Like the grave!”

“Whoa! Calm down, calm down!” Miopa made a face. “Start at the start, and be quick. I’ve got to dash, the roof came off our pigeon loft last night, we need to put it back on. Come on, then, what?”

“You’ll never guess, Miopa. Leyesso has a young dragon hiding in her shed! It was brought down by the hurricane! He was flying home with his grandfather, and he doesn’t know how he’s going to get home now!” Tooba was wringing his hands in anxiety, and even hopping up and down.

“He’s still only little, and young dragons mustn’t fly by themselves, without any grown-ups! Because they still haven’t developed the sense that dragons use to find their way! And, and, well, he’s an orphan, his parents were shot down by magic arrows when he was still just a baby!” Leyesso was tugging at Miopa’s sleeve. “You’ve got to think of something!”

“Miopa, we need help! We’ve got to send him home somehow, or seek out his grandfather and get him to fly here to pick up his grandson.”

“Right,” Miopa scratched his head. “So that’s what’s up. It’s a pretty pickle.”

He stood thinking for a long time.

“You see, if he’s one of those dragons that live the other side of the Eastern ridge, it’s not so bad. You could fly there in, oh, a day and a half, I reckon, and he’ll cope with that by himself. But if he’s one of the Northern dragons, then it’s a different story. It’s a very long way away, and autumn is already over. He might freeze. If he’s little, he won’t yet have a good flame. All right, look,” Miopa had made his decision. “I’ll nip off home right now, and then I’ll head round to yours, Leyesso, and the first thing we’ll do is have a word with him.”

“Where shall we meet?”

“That place on the shore where the fox bit you last spring, Tooba. In half an hour, don’t be late.”

“We should go, as well,” nodded Tooba. “I’ll tell my folks that we need to get together for something.”

Miopa dashed home, and Leyesso and Tooba hared off to the armourer’s workshop.

 

 

Half an hour later they gathered together again and set off across the river in a boat with the cooper. He was distraught over the destruction the hurricane had inflicted. His barrels had been scattered all over the district, the very barrels he’d been planning to earn good money from, so that he could repair his workshop.

“I’ll have to start over, working in the old one. But the roof leaks in there, and the windows won’t shut, it’s drafty. Winter’s coming on, I’ll catch my death of cold again,” the cooper complained as he worked the oars.

“I’ll get our lot to keep their eyes open,” said Miopa, thoughtfully, meaning the young boys he knew. “Once they get their own stuff sorted out, we’ll look for your barrels. The last thing we need is you catching cold. So they got scattered around, well, that’s not so bad. Maybe they got flung as far as somebody who’d meant to buy one anyway. You won’t have to pay for delivery.”

“Wow!” exclaimed Tooba in delight. “Look how massive that tree is, and even so the roots were torn out!”

He pointed to the uprooted trunk of an oak tree that was sailing down the middle of the river like an actual ship.

“I can’t remember the like.” The cooper shook his head, hurriedly steering off to one side. “I’ll wager nobody can. There’s been nothing like this round here for at least a century.”

“Maybe it was sent deliberately?” suggested Tooba. “There’s that evil magician who lives in the south. Wicked, he is. Ours is forever falling out with him.”

“No, it was an ordinary hurricane.” Again, the cooper shook his head. “Firstly, special hurricanes invariably break something specific, or carry it away to a particular place. But this one came and went, and nothing uncanny happened. Although, who knows... Secondly, our magician is no fool, you take my word. A special hurricane, even one like that, he would have driven off in two shakes.”

“He’d have driven it off?” Leyesso asked thoughtfully. “So why didn’t he drive this one off, then, the non-special one? Isn’t it allowed?”

“Of course it’s not allowed.” The cooper nodded. He was drawing closer to the riverbank, which was covered in branches and debris torn from houses and sheds. “A hurricane which has been whipped up specially, that’s one thing. A proper hurricane, that happens by itself, that’s quite another. It’s a natural phenomenon, isn’t it? You should let them happen the way they happen. And, anyway, if a hurricane happens, or an earthquake, it’s not the magicians who are to blame, but we ourselves, us ordinary people. Everything in the world is set up to be in balance. And we, every one of us, are a part of that balance. And if we do something wrong, the balance is disturbed. And it has to be restored, balance does. Meaning hurricanes, or, as it may be, floods, for example. They somehow restore that balance. That’s what I think myself, and our Astrologer has said as much, as well.”

“He’s a wise old man,” replied Miopa with approval. “But there is one thing he doesn’t know. I asked him once how I could tell what is good, and what is bad. Not for me, but in general. He said he didn’t know! So I asked him what his telescope revealed. But he said that’s not the sort of thing you can make out through a telescope.”

“And he wasn’t afraid to say it,” noted the cooper, with admiration. “Here we are, then. Now, what about those barrels? Will you help?”

“Of course,” the children nodded. “It’s just we have one important thing to do, and it has to be done right now.” Bidding the cooper farewell, Miopa, Leyesso and Tooba ran towards the mill.

“He won’t have frozen, will he?” asked Tooba, anxiously. “It’s cold in that shed!”

“I closed the door firmly, it didn’t ought to be drafty,” worried Leyesso.

“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” repeated Miopa. “In a minute we’ll get there, and we’ll find out everything.”

At last, they got there. They stealthily crept round the fence (the dogs, recognising familiar scents, simply wagged their tails) and entered the yard through the gate which opened onto the woods. They stole across to the shed.

The young dragon was just where the girl had left him, against the wall, behind a pile of grain sacks. He had curled himself round, and was lying with his head on the tip of his tail. He looked sadly at the children, and blinked often, as though he was struggling to keep from crying. He was really small, only ten paces from head to tail, but he was already black. Only the webs between his toes and the very tips of his wings were still crimson. His scales, already hard, glittered in the gloom of the shed.

“Hello!” exclaimed the children under their breath, and ran up to the young dragon. “So, how are you? Frozen stiff? Hungry? Now we’re going to figure out how to save you!”

The young dragon spun its head round, looking intently at the children. “I thought you weren’t coming,” he said, softly.

“Oh, how could you!” Leyesso was upset with him. “I did tell you that I just had to go to school, but then we’d come back straight away and come up with a plan. You know, last year we saved a little hedgehog. He’d fallen down the well and started to drown. We only just managed to save him. We even had to go down the well. It’s ever so scary down there, you know!”

“I don’t know,” said the young dragon, sadly. “I don’t know what a well is... I don’t even know how I’m going to get back home, now.”

“Don’t you dare get upset,” Miopa clapped the young dragon on his paw. “It happens to us all! Last year I got lost in the forest, and fell into a wolf’s den. Imagine that! But I didn’t cry at all. I was just afraid that the wolf would fall in on top of me, and there we’d sit until he got hungry. But you’ve been lucky! You didn’t get plunged into a swamp, or smashed on a pile of rocks, but sent down to us in our backyard. There’s even somewhere for you to hide.”

The young dragon wordlessly swung round his head, and looked at the children.

“What’s your name?” Tooba asked the question that had been tormenting him for the past hour.

“Nothing, yet.” The young dragon was embarrassed, he looked guiltily at the boy. “You see... We choose a name only when we are already adults. But while we’re not yet fully grown and while we’re not allowed to fly without adults, we don’t have names. When I’m ninety-nine years old and become a grown-up, then I’ll choose a name for myself. But in the meantime, well...”

“Don’t cry!” Leyesso stroked the young dragon’s paw.

“I’m not crying... It’s just that my grandfather will be so worried out there! You see, I’m the very last one, and if something happens to me...”

And, although he had assured the children that he wasn’t crying, it seemed to them that his eyes had filled with golden tears.

“A-ha!” said Miopa in a business-like tone. “So you’re an Eastern dragon! Brilliant.”

“You haven’t broken anything, have you?” Leyesso was still concerned. “Are you still in one piece?”

“I think so, yes... But what does it matter? I won’t be able to fly all the way home. I still haven’t developed my sense of direction. It only comes to us when we are ninety-nine years old. Then we can fly wherever we like, without adults.”

“What, even to the other side of the sea?” asked Tooba, not knowing whether to be appalled or delighted.

“Even to the other side of the sea,” said the young dragon, sadly.

“Calm down, calm down,” Miopa was thinking things over. “If your sense of direction hasn’t developed yet, we’ll have to find something else instead. Of course, it will all seem primitive – ridiculous, even – compared to an actual dragon’s sense of direction... What we need is a map and compass. Do you know what they are?”

“Of course!” The dragon livened up and his eyes burned a dark gold. “Grandfather used to say that you must never go to sea without a map and compass. Every sea-captain must know his map and compass. But Grandfather doesn’t even know where I came down... That hurricane was so scary! There we were, flying home, and suddenly, at midnight, on it came! And of course, out over the sea, there’s nowhere to land. Clouds and lightning all across the sky, all the way up to the stars! I tell you true, it was so frightening! I don’t even remember when it caught hold of me. And I couldn’t tell you how far it took me. And then, it slammed me into the ground! I woke up, looked around, and saw it was already morning and the hurricane had blown over. I saw a shed. I very nearly couldn’t crawl that far and hide.”

He sighed, and once more lay his head on the tip of his tail.

“Just a minute!” Leyesso had remembered something. “Do you want anything to eat, at all? We’ll bring it for you, just tell us what you want!”

“No, thank you. I’ve already eaten this week,” said the young dragon, sadly.

“Does that mean dragons eat once a week?” Tooba could not sit still for inquisitiveness.

“Grown-ups eat once every three months, but the little ones, while they still can’t fly by themselves, once a week. I’ve already eaten, Grandfather brought me pumpkins, from the south, ever so tasty they were. He’ll be out of his mind with worry...”

“We’ve also got pumpkins!” This thought cheered Leyesso up. “We’ll give you some to take with you. What if you get hungry on the way? Just in case.”

“Of course we’ll give you some,” promised Miopa. “But first we need to get hold of a map and a compass, and to think about how you’re going to fly home. You wait here for us, and we’ll go off and get everything sorted out.”

The young dragon looked imploringly at the children. “Just, please, don’t be long.”

“We’ll do our best! Right, then, let’s go!”

 

 

Leyesso ran off to find some sacking, and they tucked the dragon up so that only his nose poked out; that, and the tip of his tail, so that he had something to lay his nose on. Then they raced back into the town. Crossing back over the river, they paused very briefly to check progress on rebuilding the bridge, and then they headed for the castle.

“First, we’ll go visit the Astrologer.” Miopa had his plan of action worked out. “He’ll give us a map, or he’ll tell us where to get hold of one.”

They ran on into the town, which was humming with activity throughout: doors, shutters and curtains were being rehung; rubbish and smashed slates were being removed; panes of glass were being replaced. Miopa, Leyesso and Tooba ran up to the castle, clustered round the rosy-cheeked guard and, hardly pausing to catch their breath, began demanding to see the Astrologer.

“We need to see him on very urgent business!” The children were almost jumping up and down with impatience. “It’s really dreadfully urgent!”

“What business would that be, then?” The guard would not give in so easily. “You can’t just go bothering astrologers with any old nonsense. You know that, Miopa. Just what business have you got, exactly, if he’s to drop everything else for it?”

“We can only tell it to him, nobody else,” shot back Miopa. “You let us through, and then, if you like, you ask him if it was important or not. But we badly need to see him, now! And that’s that.”

“And still, what is it that’s so important? If it’s about the hurricane, then every other household has it just as bad.”

“It is about the hurricane, but it’s much more important than in any other household,” insisted Miopa. “Come on! Either go and call him down yourself, or let us past.”

“Well, all right,” the guard turned to face the tower. “I’m not climbing all the way up there, though, you can go up by yourselves.”

Finally, he let the children into the castle, and even took them as far as the base of the tower. Once they had reached the very top, there was a door on which hung a sign saying: “The Astrologer. Please knock.” So they did.

“It’s open,” came the response from inside.

The children tumbled into the room. The Astrologer was sitting at his desk, buried in a heap of paper, studying a series of charts. He turned to face his visitors, the stars and crescent moon sparkling on his deep blue gown.

“Ah, Miopa!” the Astrologer smiled. “It’s been quite a while since I last set eyes on you.”

“I’ve been drowning in schoolwork,” said Miopa, dismissing the subject. “Listen, we have an important matter to discuss. Only it’s so ticklish that you can’t tell anyone, all right? It’s very important, and very secret.”

“How are your parents? How’s your brother?” The Astrologer put his charts to one side.

“Same as always.”

“The pigeons?”

“Them too. Listen, we have something to discuss which is ever so important. And you must promise not to tell anyone about it. It’s very important, and very secret.”

“I see.” The Astrologer invited the children to sit down on a small bench. “So, tell me all about it.”

“Well, it’s like this,” began Miopa once they had all sat down. “There’s a young dragon in our shed. He was flying home to the East with his grandfather and the hurricane overtook them. He was spun round and dumped almost on top of her house.” He indicated Leyesso. “You see, he’s still little, he’s not yet reached ninety-nine years old. And young dragons, until they turn ninety-nine, they don’t develop their sense of direction. Well, you probably know... The point is, he can’t fly home. But he’s the very last of the Eastern dragons! His grandfather is most likely already looking for him, but there’s no way he’ll be able to find him. To cut a long story short, we need a map and compass.”

“Hmm,” the Astrologer folded his arms and began pondering. “Maybe we should wait until his grandfather finds him? Wouldn’t it be best for him to stay in the shed for now? Or if that’s too risky, to hide him somewhere better?”

“I’ve already thought that over,” Miopa shook his head. “You see, who knows when his grandfather will find him? Maybe he never will. There’s no telling how long he might be with us. And just think what will happen if anyone finds out there’s a dragon hiding somewhere hereabouts! He might be young, but he’s still a dragon! You know what they’re like round here.”

“Unfortunately, I do,” agreed the old man, stroking his long white beard. “So, you were saying he’s an Eastern dragon?”

“Yes! And that’s good news! Aren’t the Eastern dragons closer to us than the Northern ones?”

“They used to be,” said the Astrologer, mournfully. “Incidentally, I used to know his grandfather. This would have been sixty years ago, before your friend had even hatched. I’d travelled to the Eastern Sea. On its farther shore there is wilderness, and beyond that, the mountains where the dragons live. Or used to... We talked about sad things. Even then there were literally only three or four of them left. And now, you were saying, he’s the last? What is happening to the world? What a fool I’ve been! I sit here, trying to account for every last star, my hair turning quite white, and meanwhile the last dragons are dying out. Very well! There is nothing to be gained from long conversations.”

The children nodded in reply.

“I do have a map. And now we’ll lay our hands on the very best and newest I have. But for a compass I’m afraid you’ll have to run down to the docks. Ask one of the sea-captains for his back-up compass. Explain clearly that you need it for an important matter.”

The Astrologer stood and went over to a cupboard containing scrolls of paper. “I don’t even need to search far, I’ve got an excellent map right here. No, not that one... Nor that... Where has it got to?.. A-ha!”

The children jumped down off the bench and crowded round the old man, examining his old map inquisitively. “What a magnificent map!” Miopa exclaimed. “Such fine work! Look how clear and precise everything is!”

“Quite so!” The old man nodded with pride and satisfaction. “They don’t make them like that anymore. This map was drawn by my teacher’s teacher. He travelled around the whole of the north, the north-east and the east, and I can vouch for the fact that this is the most accurate map in existence today. It’s over a hundred years’ old, but still.”

“A hundred years is nothing to the world,” said Leyesso in amazement. “As far as the world is concerned, it’s just like yesterday would be for us.”

“That’s only if you don’t meddle and reshape it,” the old man said to the girl with a twinkle. “Now, let’s see how we need to fly.”

They returned to his desk. The Astrologer tidied away his charts and unrolled the map. “Flying direct, you could get there in a day. The only trouble is, young dragons cannot fly for more than ten or twelve hours. They might over-exert themselves, and then they will never take off again.”

“Even if there’s an adult with them?” Leyesso was horrified.

“Even if there’s an adult with them, yes. If a young dragon over-exerts himself, he will have to spend the rest of his days crawling like a lizard.”

“We can’t have that!” The children were growing agitated. “You need to plot a route so that he can get some rest!”

“That is exactly what I’m telling you. He needs to fly north-east to begin with, and then south-east. That way, he will always have somewhere to land if he gets tired or if he runs into another hurricane of some sort.”

“That’s right,” said Tooba. “It will soon be winter, gales and storms will be on the increase.”

“Let’s take this pencil, and draw two lines. This one is how he should fly north, skirting the edge of the Eastern sea. That one is how to fly east, when the sea comes to an end.”

“Oh, he will have to fly such a long way up to the north!” sighed Leyesso as she looked at the route. “What if he can’t stay warm? What if he freezes? He’s still only little.”

“While he’s flying, he won’t freeze,” Miopa reassured her. “And when he lands for a rest, he’ll seek out some cave or other, to stay out of the wind.”

“We’ll need to wrap him up in sacking. Otherwise I won’t let him go!”

“Sacking will get in his way!” Tooba was ready to argue. “Do you think you could fly comfortably if someone wrapped you up in sacking? He’s still only little, he’s still got red wingtips, you’ve seen them yourself.”

“We’ll roll up some sacking and give it to him for the journey,” Miopa decided. “If he can’t find a cave for the night, he’ll just snuggle up in the sacking and he’ll be fine.”

“And we’ll give him some pumpkins!” insisted Leyesso. “You know what tasty pumpkins we’ve got, and how good for you they are!”

“That’s exactly what we’ll do,” nodded the Astrologer. “He’ll need to take off in the evening. By sunrise, he’ll have reached the northern shore of the Eastern sea, and he can land for a rest. You will have to tell him to hide as best he can up there. And not to come out before sundown! There are pirates and caravan raiders who have their hideouts up there. Still worse, there always used to be dragon hunters living there. Maybe there still are. After all, there are still some dragons left alive.”

“Dragon hunters?!” The children were appalled. “Why? Where did they come from?”

“While there are still dragons, there will be dragon hunters. It was most likely they who shot your dragon’s parents.”

“But why would anyone want to kill a dragon?” Leyesso was almost in tears. “What awful people we humans can be!”

“Some say they are seeking revenge on a dragon that was supposed to have destroyed a city, or burned a caravan, or stolen something away. Others don’t even try to hide that they are after dragon scales. You already know that you can’t overcome a dragon’s scales with anything apart from a magic arrow. Back when there were still many dragons, ignorant magicians used to wander around the world making their living by selling magic arrows. You can still find such arrows even now. They’ll pass through any chain mail, through any shield, through iron as thick as your finger. I’ve seen one myself, forty-odd years ago it was...” The Astrologer grew thoughtful, and sighed. “Mind you, there used to be true magicians, cruel and merciless, who would kill dragons to master the secret of their fire. You see, dragonfire is the hottest of all, it can burn or melt many things that no other fire can even touch. And it’s vital to have a good fire when you’re in the magic profession.”

“But can’t anyone find some sort of different fire?” Leyesso was agitated again. “Surely, somewhere in all this great wide world there must be another kind of fire that is just as hot? And why, when it comes down to it, can’t we just make friends with dragons? Then the dragon could blow on whatever it was you wanted, and melt it?”

“And how come,” Tooba was wondering, “how come the dragonfire remains if the dragon itself has been killed?”

“This is what you have to understand,” the Astrologer sighed again. “The fire is the spirit of the dragon. You see, a dragon is not simply some kind of big lizard, it is, so to speak, the body of a fire-spirit. The wicked magicians would kill the dragon as though it were the body of this spirit, while taking the fire-spirit itself and making use of it. It’s said some magicians knew how to bend the spirit to their will so powerfully that they almost became dragons themselves. Of course, they did not learn how to fly or to breathe fire, to do that you need to be born a dragon. But with the spirit of a dragon you will see, hear, sense and know everything that dragons can.”

“But that means,” mused Miopa, “that to see, hear, sense and know everything that dragons can... you don’t have to be born a dragon?”

“Of course not,” the Astrologer nodded. “Flying and breathing fire, that’s one thing. Seeing, hearing, sensing, knowing. All that’s quite another.”

“Then people must be capable,” exclaimed Leyesso, “of learning to see, to hear, to sense and to know everything that dragons can! And to not kill dragons!”

“All the more so seeing that killing a dragon is no small feat, and dangerous to boot,” said Tooba.

“Quite so,” the Astrologer nodded his head and smoothed his beard. “You need to be a very powerful and talented magician to manage that. To capture a dragon’s spirit, and then keep it against its will, I’ll tell you, that requires you to be a great master.”

“But how can that be?” exclaimed Miopa, so agitated he was jumping up and down. “I’ve never understood it! How can it be right, to be such a great master, to know of and be able to do so many things... And then to go and kill a dragon and imprison its soul! How does it happen that knowledge embraces such evil people?”

“That is a complicated question,” said the Astrologer, thoughtfully. “There is a peculiar wisdom in how the world is arranged. Knowledge simply exists, and is forbidden to no-one. And it merely seems that it embraces evil-doers. It is we who decide all of a sudden that a person is an evil-doer. Whereas knowledge decides for itself, and takes a long time to do so.”

“But then, it will crack them so hard over the head!” Tooba jumped in.

“It surely will,” the Astrologer smiled. “Mind you, I have noticed over my long lifetime that anything can happen before the blow comes.”

“Then there is no wisdom in the world,” Leyesso was now angry. “How can that be right, that ‘anything can happen’?”

“He’s telling you: knowledge needs to think awhile, about whose head to crack and whose not to!” retorted Tooba. “Do you think it’s so easy to decide? Can you imagine just how much of everything it needs to consider?”

“That’s enough, you two!” Miopa cut in. “You can talk about that later. Nothing’s going to happen to the world or to knowledge for now, and meanwhile we’ve got a young dragon who is freezing. His scales are still thin. It’s a good job at least that your shed is well-built, lined with timber. Well, now, let’s go and get this compass!” Miopa jumped up off the bench.

“Come back and visit me!”

“Definitely,” promised Miopa, “but first we’ll send the young dragon on his way. Then I need to fix the pigeon loft, and then clear the branches from the yard, and then do my homework, but then I’ll definitely come and visit.”

“We need to mend the roof, collect the sack crates and replace the glass in the kitchen windows,” said Leyesso.

“We’ve got to fix our sign back up, and help our neighbour: his wall was blown down, and now he’s got the tavern’s pigs grubbing up his workshop floor,” said Tooba.

“And then we need to lend the cooper a hand, too. All his barrels got scattered, and they need to be collected, otherwise he can’t sell them, and then he won’t have the money to repair his workshop, which is drafty, and then he’ll catch cold again,” concluded Miopa, and the children, at last, ran off.

 

 

They went back down to the castle courtyard, took their leave of the guard, and headed down to the docks. There, the hurricane had felt most at home. Sacks and bales that had been readied for loading were scattered all about the wharves, but the main thing was the ship that had been smashed against the dockside. The sailors were gathering the wreckage, while the captain was standing off to one side with the merchants, scratching his head over how they could have got things so badly wrong, how they were ever going to build a new ship now, and what they could do to make sure it didn’t happen again.

Miopa, Leyesso and Tooba ran up to the huge pile of wreckage and gazed for a while with delight to see such a rare treat, and then they began looking for someone they could beg a compass from. Not far from the wreck they made out a three-masted ship from distant lands, sporting an unfamiliar flag. A sailor was standing by the gangplank, smoking a pipe. The children ran up to him.

“Are you the captain?” Miopa pointed at the foreign vessel.

“I am,” replied the sailor, puffing away on his pipe and looking at the children with interest. “Are you after a passage somewhere?”

“Not right now. We need a compass. It’s really urgent. Quite desperate, in fact. It must read true, and be proven! It mustn’t deceive! It must have been proven!”

“I’d quite like a compass like that, myself,” smiled the captain, puffing his sweet-smelling pipe. “What do you need it for?”

“It’s really important. A matter of life and death. We really need one!”

“There are all kinds of matters. You’d probably do all right with an ordinary one, do you see? But, no, you demand the very truest, most proven... Just you try and find one like that. Especially these days.”

“It really is a very important matter, honestly!” Miopa repeated in frustration. “We badly need one! Quite desperately, in fact... So just where are we to find one, then?”

“Well,” and the captain puffed his pipe. “I’ve got a compass like that. Very good, proven and reliable, I’ve sailed the whole sea with it, and it never once sent me astray. Ah, I’ve been to... No, wait, if I was to tell you all the places I’ve been you’d be here ‘til morning and still not hear the end. But, of course, a compass like that, I wouldn’t part with just for you to do who-knows-what. You understand me.”

“Well, you see,” and Miopa began anxiously explaining. “There’s a young dragon hiding in our shed. He was flying home to the East with his grandfather when the hurricane overtook them. He was spun round and dumped almost on top of her house,” he indicated Leyesso. “He’s still only little, he’s not reached ninety-nine years old yet. And for young dragons, until they become ninety-nine, they don’t develop their sense of direction. Anyway, he can’t fly all the way home. But he’s the very last of the Eastern dragons. His grandfather most probably right now has already worn his legs out looking. Well, his wings, to be precise. But he’s hardly likely to find him! Anyway, we need a compass. Just don’t tell anyone! Not a soul! You know what they’re like round here.”

“It might be as I don’t know so well what they’re like round here... Although however far I go – and I’ve been right round the world – people everywhere are the same. The dragons vanished from my home a long time ago, too. I saw the last one when I was just a little boy... And I remember, I so very badly wanted to make friends with a dragon!”

The Captain puffed at his pipe, and gazed dreamily at the horizon, which was already wreathed in the evening mist.

“That’s why I became a sailor, because I thought there might be a land somewhere where dragons still lived.”

“Well, what happened? Did you see one anywhere? Here, dragons only live on the far side of the Eastern sea and also in the north... But that’s so far away, the ends of the earth.”

“There are still some in the west, but not exactly near at hand, either: more than a month’s voyage. I plan to head out there next year. I’ve too much to do, going here and there.”

“Can we come with you?” the children yelled. “We’ll get permission, they’ll let us go for the summer! Will you take us?”

“Of course! Next year, at the beginning of summer.”

“Fantastic!” exclaimed Miopa. “That’s just when the holidays start, and we’ll be able to travel to see the dragons.”

“It’s a deal,” the captain nodded. “But what about a map? You need a map to go with a compass.”

“Look!” Miopa hurriedly pulled the scroll from under his shirt. “The Astrologer gave it to us!”

The captain unfurled the map and coughed in admiration. “They haven’t made maps like this for an age,” he sighed. “Does your Astrologer have any more like this? I wouldn’t mind copying one.”

“You go and see him,” Miopa nodded. “He lives in the tower. Tell them you’re from Miopa – that’s my name – they’ll let you in straight away.”

“First thing tomorrow, if I have time. That’s a splendid map! You won’t go wrong with a map like that. Right, then, stay where you are...”

He went up the gangplank. The children waited impatiently, looking back at the sailors who were sorting through the marvellous wreckage at the docks. Eventually, the captain returned. He was holding a large, shiny, brass compass.

“Take this. It’s my back-up compass, exactly the same as the main one on deck. It’s accurate and reliable, I’ll vouch for that. It’s antique... They don’t make these like that anymore, either,” he added, puffing sadly. “With your map and this compass, your friend won’t lose his way.”

“Thank you!” The children began offering effusive expressions of gratitude. “So, what about the summer? Will you take us? To see the dragons in the west?”

“We made a deal, didn’t we? Go along now, run! It’s getting dark!”

“Thank you! So long!”

At last, the children took their leave and ran from the docks.

 

 

While they were heading back up towards the town, and making their way back over the river (the bridge repairs were likely to take another week), and sneaking back across the yard, it grew dark. Leyesso brought out a lantern, and the children went into the shed to find the young dragon. In the darkness, two golden eyes glittered. The young dragon stuck its head out from under the sacking and looked happily at the children.

“Oh, look at you,” Leyesso was upset with him. “You’ve been crying again! Why are your eyes wet? You promised you wouldn’t cry!”

“I’d already begun to think you weren’t coming back,” the young dragon tried to justify himself. “Do you know how scary and lonely it is in here? It’s true the dogs kept running in, bringing me bones, but all the same... it’s just, well... Would you mind coming in at least once every day, all right? Because it’s so very scary and lonely in here.”

“Stop snivelling!” ordered Miopa in a firm tone. “And anyway, we can’t leave you in the shed. Someone’s bound to stumble across you sooner or later. Or you’ll sneeze or cough accidentally, and you’ll burn down the shed. You’re a dragon! Even if you are still little. We’ve brought you a map and compass. And now I’m going to tell you how you need to fly, and then you’ll set off.”

Miopa spread out the map on the floor, and weighed it down with the lantern to stop it curling up again.

“Look at this line. This is how you need to fly. The map is really good, and from the air you’ll see everything the way it’s shown here. You just need to imagine this line on the ground and fly along it. The important thing is to always hold the map so that it shows the ground as it is. Do you see this compass in the corner, here, drawn in? Hold the map so that the blue line on your compass points the same way as the blue line on the map. So that they both face towards the same point in the north.

“Ah!” The young dragon was examining the map with enthusiastic interest. “I’ve got it! I have to position myself so that the line along which I fly seems to pass between these markings on the compass.”

“Exactly right, well done,” Miopa praised the dragon. “You’ll fly north-east, across this river here, then over this swamp and then over this forest. Toward morning – you do fly quickly, don’t you? – you’ll have reached the northern corner of the Eastern sea. The main thing there is to land and hide! Hiding is important! There are pirates and caravan raiders who live up there, and – bear this in mind! – there might be dragon hunters. If they spot you, they will shoot magic arrows at you!”

Miopa, Tooba, Leyesso and the young dragon spent some time in silent horror. Then the young dragon spoke in a scared and angry whisper: “Was it them who shot my parents?”

“Most likely! That’s why you need to be awfully vigilant and cautious. Just imagine if something happened to you! Just imagine what that would mean! After all, you’re the last of the Eastern dragons! What then? There’d be no dragons in the east! And just imagine how upset we’d all be if we learned that something had happened to you!”

“I shall be very vigilant and cautious,” said the young dragon, firmly. “I give you my word, I will not be spotted! And I will not be shot! As soon as dawn starts to break, I will land somewhere and hide. And when the stars come out, I will fly off and be home by the morning!”

“Look. We chose this route specially so that you would have somewhere to land at any moment. Once you have waited the daylight out and you take off again, you need to fly south-east. That means,” and Miopa turned the compass to show how the needle reacted, “the line which you follow now must pass between these markings.”

“Right,” the dragon nodded, his eyes gleaming in the gloom of the shed. “I see! It’s clear, it’s actually quite simple. But the main thing is I can fly without any sense of direction!”

“You can fly home,” Miopa corrected him. “You can’t just fly anywhere with no sense of direction. Fly home, when you really have to... Well, then. Let’s say our goodbyes. It’s grown dark, it’s time for you to leave.”

Then they went outside, under the early stars of an autumn evening. The air was very fresh. The young dragon took in a deep breath.

“How wonderful! To fly at night, under the stars, in air like this!”

“You’re lucky!” Leyesso was nearly crying, now that the time had come to say farewell at last. “I wish I could fly away, too! You have to take the sacking with you. And here’s another pumpkin for you, they’re tasty! Let me tie this sacking under your paw, because it’ll already be cold in the north...”

“Take it, it could come in handy,” nodded Tooba. “Who’s to know what will happen? It’s not like you’ll have a campfire to keep you warm. For one thing, there might not be any firewood. For another, wicked people might notice a fire!”

“That’s enough of that! You need to be flying, it’s already late...” Leyesso gave a sob, flung herself at the dragon, and hugged his neck.

“You’re true friends,” said the young dragon quietly. He did not know quite where to look, and stared sadly at the ground. His scales shimmered in the autumn twilight. “Once I’m ninety-nine, I’ll choose a name, and my grandfather will let me out from the cave by myself. I’ll fly straight back to you!”

“And then will you take us for a ride, just a little one? Just over the forest?” Leyesso was wiping away tears.

“Of course! We’ll fly into the very back of beyond, somewhere no-one has ever been! And then we’ll fly high up to some peak and breathe fire into the high mountain air. And we’ll sit and look around, and the whole world will be at our feet! Won’t that be wonderful?”

“Oh, it will!” the children nodded, sadder than they had ever been in their lives.

“And then we’ll fly back to my home! Oh, do you know what a splendid view we have from our cave? The valley, so calm and cosy... And down below, the river, fast and clear, as though crystal was flowing from the mountains. And the water in it is so pure and it tastes so good, and so cold – freezing! And above, the clear sky, velvet and soft, even when it’s very cold... Oh, do you know, it’s magnificent where we live!”

“It’s time!” Miopa handed the map and compass to the young dragon. “Off you go! May you have fair winds!”

“May you have fair winds!” said Tooba.

“May you have fair winds!” said Leyesso.

One by one, the children hugged the dragon’s neck. Flashing his eyes in farewell, he took a run and then jumped, beating his wings. Then again and again, stroke after stroke, he rose higher and higher into the air. For the briefest of moments his scales flashed in the last ray of sunlight, and then he faded away into the fathomless indigo autumn sky.

 

 

Gai Sever