This is the second chapter of the original 2009 Spera novella. The first chapter can be read here.
2. Her heart in the right place
Pira knelt at the river, cupped the sparkling water with her palm and sipped. She smiled; the liquid coated her with an agreeable coolness, alleviating the weight of the morning sun.
Lono washed her face a few feet away and Pira was struck by just how dirty Lono’s dress had become: stains of grass and soil striped the skirt, something that would have thrown Lono into a frenzy on any other day. Worst of all, however, was that one of the area’s most vicious plants had latched onto the dress, stitching itself to the fabric; a jagged green ribbon dangled from the hem, while the red of broken skin could be made out on Lono’s fingers through glass splashes of river water.
‘Are you all right?’ Pira asked.
Lono wiped the wet from her face with her forearm.
‘I’m fine,’ she said, smiling.
‘We’re going to want to get a move on,’ Yonder said as he padded towards them. ‘We already have more of a head start than the queen could possibly fathom, but with one more day of travel I can get us to the cave. At that point you’ll be untouchable.’
‘You’re so awesome and modest, Yonder,’ Pira said. ‘I think we should eat first, though.’
‘Did you find any more of those tritae?’ Lono asked hungrily.
‘No, but I have an idea for something more substantial. How do you feel about fish?’
Lono gave it some thought.
‘Okay, your first mistake is taking that long to think about it. We’re going to have fish. Yonder?’
‘My sword, please.’
‘Sometimes I’m forced to question our friendship,’ Yonder said resignedly.
He took several steps back, his flames increasing in size as he put a safe distance between himself and the princesses; bracing his paws against the soil, he stretched out his neck and began making grotesque gurgling sounds. Lono gasped. Given her eager smile, Pira was apparently finding some satisfaction in the scene, but Lono was bewildered, uncertain as to what to say or do. She made to rush towards Yonder only to have her arm caught and held by Pira.
‘Just wait,’ Pira said, not taking her eyes off Yonder.
Lono looked to Pira’s profile with increased confusion.
The sound of metal running along flesh was accompanied by the sound of suppressed gagging. Something landed at the princesses’ feet and Lono saw it was a sword.
‘Thanks, Yonder,’ Pira said to the panting, pained fire spirit as she lifted the regurgitated weapon.
The sword seemed to be sized specifically for Pira; Lono could tell it was shorter and more lightweight than the ones issued to her kingdom’s knights and captains. The blade was of a green metal Lono had never seen before, polished but without any shine, and Pira held the sword by a golden handle. For Lono it was all too unreal, and she imagined touching the sword would be no different from touching a dream.
While Pira proudly brandished her sword, Yonder recovered from his momentary nightmare.
‘That thing’s never going back in,’ he growled.
‘I don’t need you to hide it for me anymore, anyway,’ Pira said, closing one eye and pointing the tip of her sword towards the river. She kept her open eye on an invisible point just beyond the tip, watching for signs of movement within the water.
This went on for several minutes. Lono stroked Yonder’s nose absently, her inquisitive eyes following the dances of butterflies. The butterflies were bright, oily rainbows amongst the yellow grass, and Lono would have attempted capturing and eating one were they not so incredibly poisonous. Still, they were pretty to look at, and their playful, unexpected movements were more entertaining to Lono than the statue of Pira standing by the water.
‘Is she going to catch anything?’ she asked Yonder.
‘That’s up to the fish,’ Yonder replied.
Lono nodded as if this were a reasonable answer.
‘You know, I’ve been wondering something: what do you eat? I haven’t seen you take a single bite out of anything and you’ve been getting more exercise than either of us.’
Yonder spoke as if reciting the answer from memory:
‘I eat things you cannot see, touch, taste, smell or hear.’
‘How often do you eat them?’
‘All the time.’
A flash of brown entered Pira’s vision and she rammed the sword into it, pouring all of her swiftness and strength into the motion. For one breathless moment she kept the blade in the water, the tip touching a stone; wondering if there was going to be something on the other end, she closed her eyes and swallowed.
‘Anything?’ Lono asked.
Pira opened her eyes and withdrew her sword, triumphantly pulling a large fish out of the river. She took the fish from its green skewer and slapped it against a stone until it died.
‘It’s still breakfast time, right?’ she asked as she excitedly brought the fish to Lono and Yonder.
She had Lono sit so she could smooth out the back of her skirt on the grass. With practised gentleness she placed the fish on the fabric, and as Lono’s back shaded her hands and the fish from the sun, Pira prepared their meal.
* * *
Pira took out the map once their fast had been broken and went over it with Yonder. Yonder was far more familiar with the landmarks it depicted than Pira was and pointed them out to her:
‘Lono’s castle would be just below where the map ends – here, at the bottom. Now look to the west – see that lone tree in the distance? That’s a spire, and it’s far taller than it appears from here. That’s what this bit is on the map.’
‘The twisty hair?’
‘Yes, the twisty hair. There’s a long, terrible story about the spire, but speaking of it is forbidden. Its fate is to be forever sealed in a history that no longer exists.’
‘Kind of like us,’ Lono said quietly.
Pira looked to Lono with the intention of reassuring her in some small way, but Yonder continued before she could even open her mouth:
‘Now look to the northeast. What do you see?’
‘I see a line of trees,’ she said. ‘A forest.’
‘Right. This forest is on the map, over here. That means we’re in the middle.’
‘We’re right where we should be,’ Pira said, nodding. ‘According to the map, at least. That means all we have to do is keep going north.’
‘I wonder what this is, though,’ Lono said. She pointed to a spot on the map that indicated a ghostly, limbless form with small eyes and a large mouth. The form was between their location and the area of the mountain where the cave supposedly lay.
‘Whatever it is, we’ll deal with it when the time comes,’ Yonder said. ‘Are you two ready?’
The girls climbed onto Yonder’s back, and within the span of a heartbeat he went from a deliberate walk to a full-on run.
Pira held her sword low enough to touch the ground, the blade cutting the earth as they set forth on their journey. Yonder stopped.
‘Is it really necessary to have an arrow pointing us out to everyone?’ he asked drily.
Pira humbly lifted her sword and Yonder again built up speed.
The trio soared across rolling hills, passing an ancient ruin that caught both Pira and Lono’s attention, and rocketed through a field of the tallest, most yellow grass the princesses had ever seen. Pira wondered if Yonder had somehow taken them to the Fields of Nowhere before realising the grass was not wheat, that there was actually an end to this stretch of land.
Stops were made for lunch and other necessities, but otherwise it felt to the princesses like a single, uninterrupted journey through a strange land. When the girls were not watching the blur of the landscape, they watched the sun set, the sky turning pink before their eyes.
Sometimes Lono would look from the sky to Pira’s sword, wondering if it would have to be used for anything other than catching fish.
‘I smell trouble up ahead,’ growled Yonder.
He maintained his astonishing speed despite this proclamation, and the princesses could tell he aimed to bowl through whatever it was that meant to block their path. They braced themselves for the worst.
‘Is it the ghost?’ Lono asked nervously.
The ground suddenly swelled beneath them, sending them towards the sky. Yonder quickly collected himself and dived back down, his paws greeted by an abnormally tall hill that moved with his body. He realised that although he was running northward, towards the mountains, the hill was moving them west.
‘It’s taking us somewhere,’ Pira noted breathlessly.
‘Can’t you get away from it, Yonder?’ Lono asked, terror trembling her voice.
‘There’s some kind of magic field,’ Yonder explained, still running in spot. ‘There’s nothing I can do.’
Pira climbed down and stood on the traveling hill. She bent low and pressed her hands on the grass and soil, feeling for some answer lurking within the swollen question.
The soil bubbled, sending black dirt between her fingers. Pira dug her nails into the hill in response.
Yonder stopped running and craned his neck to the side in order to supervise Pira.
‘You might not want to mess with something that can so easily play with us,’ he told her.
‘Shh. I think it’s trying to say something.’
She pressed her ear to the hill and listened.
‘What’s it saying?’ Lono whispered.
Pira’s eyes widened.
‘I don’t think you want to know,’ she said.
She suddenly sat up on her knees, raised her sword and jammed it hilt-deep into the hill. The soil around the sword bubbled with mindless intensity.
Pira yanked her sword out, the momentum sending her into Yonder’s hind leg, and struggled dizzily to her feet.
‘Get up!’ Yonder called out to her. ‘Climb onto my back!’
A cloud-high stream of grass and dirt shot out of the hole left by Pira’s blade, and with it came an atrocious sound, an ear-piercing screech unlike anything the princesses had ever heard. Yonder, seeing Pira could barely stand, let alone climb, carefully collected her in his mouth and leapt away from the wounded hill.
He brought them a safe distance to the east and gently set Pira on a soft patch of grass. Lono jumped down, knelt at Pira’s side and elevated her head.
‘Are you all right?’ she asked worriedly, struggling to keep the tears from her voice.
‘I’m fine,’ Pira said, smiling. ‘This type of thing happens to me all the time.’
Pira then looked from Lono to the hill, still tall in the distance. She just barely made out a horrific face before the hill deflated completely, returning to the earth which had birthed it.
‘I guess that was your ghost,’ she said, standing up.
‘Nothing your sword couldn’t fix,’ Yonder said, his black lips forming an appreciative smile.
The smile was somewhat grotesque and Lono found herself glancing away.
Pira stretched loudly, enjoying the cool of twilight as it fell upon the land. She retrieved her sword and wiped away the hill’s blood and guts, the dirt and grass crumbling and falling to the ground around her feet. She stepped away from the remains and shuddered.
‘I only did what felt natural,’ she said modestly. ‘But I’m sure that if I didn’t do something, you would have.’
Yonder shook his head.
‘This one was new to me,’ he said. ‘It wasn’t just an earth spirit – it was as if the earth itself had attacked us.’
‘That’s not a very comforting thought,’ Lono said.
‘Then don’t think about it,’ Pira told her.
Yonder thoroughly inspected their surroundings, sniffing the air in every direction. The foreboding scent that had foretold the hill was nowhere to be found.
‘We should be all right,’ he said. ‘I’ll take us to the base of the mountain where we can rest – I can get us there before the end of magic hour, and there shouldn’t be any worry of landslides tonight. We can scale the mountain under cover of darkness.’
‘Why “cover”?’ Lono asked, confused. ‘How could Pira’s mother see us? We must be forever away from her.’
‘It’s hard to say who might be watching us at this point, or who will be,’ Yonder said cryptically.
‘Do you know something we don’t?’ Pira asked.
‘I’ll always know more than you can imagine,’ he said. ‘Right now, however, I am merely speculating.’
He lay flat so the girls could more easily regain their positions. Once they were seated he continued the journey, the world darkening around them until Pira and Lono could no longer make out the surrounding landscape through the glow of Yonder’s flames.
* * *
They arrived at their destination with growling stomachs and sore muscles. Yonder pressed himself to the ground and the girls rolled off him, glad to no longer be sitting on the spine of a giant dog; they moaned a mixture of pain and pleasure as Yonder stretched, glad to be free of two princesses.
Yonder transformed into his human form, and Lono watched this spirit of a man carefully, searching for aspects of his truer self she would have missed earlier. His clothes in particular took on new meaning: she wondered if those denim pants and that dirty coat were a part of him. She felt his face had the markings of a fire spirit as well, and paid particular attention to the way in which he scratched his great red beard, how he scaled the mountain with his warm, crinkly eyes.
‘Any sign of the cave?’ Pira asked as she looked up with him.
‘I can sense a change in the wind a few gallops up from here,’ Yonder said.
‘You’ll have to explain what “gallops” means in this situation,’ Pira told him. ‘Not everyone present was raised on spiritspeak.’
‘It’s simple enough – stand twelve of me on top of each other and I’d be able to touch it.’
‘That doesn’t sound so bad.’
‘Only if you speak for yourself,’ Lono said nervously, shielding her eyes from the mountain’s intimidating mass. ‘The mountain looks like it could poke the eye out of the moon.’
‘We’re not climbing the whole thing,’ Pira reminded her, ‘we’re only climbing twelve Yonders worth of it. Besides, we’ve already been through worse than this, and once we’re actually up there we’ll be home free. There’s no turning back now.’
Lono considered this. She turned back to the land they were leaving behind: all the fields, hills, rivers and ruins she had never seen before, and beyond them the castle she had seen so much of. She thought about her father and she thought about Pira’s mother; she thought about Nole and she thought about Kyle. She thought about a life she had only ever read about in books.
‘What happens if I fall?’
‘I’ll catch you,’ Yonder told her. ‘I’ll wait at the bottom while the two of you climb.’
Lono felt her heart catch in her throat but managed to swallow it back down.
‘Okay,’ she said. ‘Let’s do it now before I try running away.’
‘I’ll go first,’ she said.
The princesses greeted the mountain by caressing its craggy surface, feeling for the nearest handholds. Pira found one by a branch, gripped it and pulled herself up, her feet toeing pointed rocks. She then went from handhold to handhold and foothold to foothold, swinging her limbs mindfully but eagerly.
Lono stepped back to watch Pira’s climb. There were moments when Pira misjudged the stability of a rock, sending her feet helplessly into the air, and Lono felt the flutter of panic in her heart. But Pira always regained control of the situation, and the look of anxiety on Lono’s face was soon replaced by one of admiration.
Pira pulled herself onto a ledge and disappeared behind it. A moment later her face appeared, covering a constellation; a grin cut across her face like a crescent moon.
‘I found it!’ she called down. ‘I can barely believe it, but I found it!’
‘That’s great!’ she called up. ‘I … guess that means it’s my turn now.’
‘You’ll be fine,’ Yonder told her calmly. ‘Think only of the beauty that awaits you – a land of glass flowers, serene zephyrs and the bluest skies. This mountain is merely a rock, an obstacle to be overcome through willpower alone.’
‘You make it sound so simple.’
‘Because it is.’
Lono nodded, bottling as much of this gift of courage as she could. She stepped up to the mountain as though it were a friendly rival, someone she was to play badminton with; after taking a deep breath, she placed her hand on a rock, her foot on a branch and pulled herself up.
For a moment she froze. Thoughts of falling crashed through her mind, and she closed her eyes as teardrops formed on her eyelashes.
‘If you don’t get up here soon, I’m going to head into the cave without you!’ Pira called down.
Lono opened her eyes, reached up and grabbed a small ledge. She put her weight on the ledge as she lifted her foot. Dirt and small stones tumbled onto her face, but she refused to be distracted by it, gaining strength through the notion that nothing the mountain could do to her could be worse than what she had already been through. Even as her delicate fingers were run raw by the face of the mountain, she had all of her hopes and memories to comfort and encourage her.
When she fell, it was into Yonder’s arms as promised. His thick, rough hands were somehow weightless beneath her, and she felt as though she were floating on a bed of heatless flames.
The fire spirit set her on her feet.
‘Thank you,’ Lono said as soon as she could breathe again.
‘Make it to that ledge and I’ll be the one giving thanks,’ Yonder told her with a smile of encouragement.
‘You mean I need to keep trying?’ Lono asked, petrified.
‘Yes, right now – before you have enough time to think it over.’
Yonder nodded. He placed his hands on her shoulders and gently directed her back to the mountain.
‘This time,’ he told her, ‘don’t bother climbing. Instead, let the mountain lift you to the cave.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Then concentrate on my words as you climb.’
She did so. His words looped through her head as she forced herself upwards. By the time she felt she had gleaned some understanding from them, she realised that the warmth around her wrist was that of Pira’s hand helping her over the ledge.
Lono crawled towards the cave, too scared to look back: she felt that, as soon as she saw how far up she was, she would suddenly, inexplicably fall back down.
Sitting in the mouth of the cave, Lono focused her eyes on Pira.
‘I … made it,’ she said, hardly believing her own words.
‘You did a terrific job,’ Pira told her.
Lono smiled and, with the reality of the accomplishment fully pinched into her, freely looked over the entrance to the cave. There was a slick, certain blackness to its interior surfaces, one that seemed to drink in the moonlight.
Yonder’s hands soon appeared at the edge of the ledge, with the rest of him appearing immediately after. He gave Lono a look that signified respect. Lono resisted the urge to congratulate him on his own feat of climbing.
‘This is it,’ Pira said. ‘This cave is the portal to our new lives. After all that’s happened … We can finally live the way we want to, not the way that’s been dictated to us. We’ll be us, and … Of course, Yonder will be joining us as he has nothing better to do.’
Yonder morphed back into his dog form with a dramatic burst of pure red flame.
‘I won’t deny it,’ he said.
Pira stuck her tongue out at him. She then headed into the cave, lit by the light of Yonder.
* * *
The three of them kept pace in an awkward line, with Yonder padding between the two girls, ducking at low ceilings and dodging numerous stalactites.
Lono tripped over a yellowed piece of wood, the billet hitting a wall with a hollow sound that echoed politely throughout the cave. They thought nothing of it until they entered the next open area, filled with the stale musk of dust – an area that was nothing less than a roomful of skeletons resting in eternal slumber.
The skeletons were arranged in layers, with legs over legs and arms over torsos, recalling ragdolls tossed carelessly to the side of a room. At the sight of them Lono leapt back and hid behind Yonder. Pira bent down and touched the leg of what must have been an adult male, half-expecting the long dead creature to come alive.
The skeletons were dressed in the colours of the earth, a varied selection of browns and greens. A few of them wore cloaks. There were no immediate signs of outside damage on any of the skeletons, and their clothes were completely intact.
‘Can you smell anything, Yonder?’ Pira asked.
Yonder’s nostrils flared as he drank in the cave’s perfumes.
‘Spirits,’ he said. ‘Harmless ones, however.’
Pira nodded, relieved.
‘Would they mind if we borrowed a few of their things?’
Yonder shook his head.
‘I doubt it,’ he said. ‘Besides, it’s not like there’s anything they can do about it now.’