‘The Very Strange Adventures of a Travelling Knight – Part 6: A Lady in Waiting’
Part Six: A Lady in Waiting
Flying came easily to Phillip. He had always felt as though he soared above others. Now he could do it for real. Beyond the opening he found himself once more beneath the huge bronze dome covered with doors. Only this time, he was not propelled against his will, but carried there by the wings that were growing from his back. Phillip wasn’t sure whether they had been grafted on this armour or were somehow a part of his body now. Or, in fact, both. All he knew was the red and black check floor lay far beneath him, the air felt marvellous against his face and that he had never felt so free. It was all worth it, he found himself thinking. All this strangeness and fear was worth it, just for this moment.
He found himself circling joyfully and then swooping in huge, graceful arcs. His wings vibrated and hummed, not like a bird’s but like those of a summer dragonfly. He was still aware of the weight of his red armour but it didn’t seem to matter. In fact it didn’t seem to be red anymore. Through the slit of his visor he caught glimpses of his metal clad arms and legs and realized that the colour had faded to a silvery grey like that of his wings.
Phillip didn’t want it to ever end. Given the choice, he would have stayed flying around the dome of the Library for the rest of his days, stopping only when exhaustion sent him tumbling to the ground to his death. But, of course, the Library had other plans for him.
A door in the dome was opening. And Phillip remembered the ruined land of the flower and the torture inflicted on the insect and he knew that there were still things he had to do. He was beginning to understand that there were things in the world more important than pleasing himself. It wasn’t a pleasant understanding, but one that he couldn’t ignore.
He had only to think of the door and his wings carried him towards it. As he flew, he had the sense of voices carried on the air from beyond some of the doors he passed. Mysterious strangers from far off lands. But there was no time to wonder about that. He was through the door now and it was closing behind him.
He landed easily, not even out of breath. His legs felt different, as if they had slight changed shape to make landing easing. Maybe when he finally got out of this armour, he would find he had legs like a pigeon. He hoped not. That would hardly charm the ladies, even the ones who liked birds.
The room he found himself in was circular, the walls covered with green tapestries. The stone floor was bare. At its centre was a wide circular opening. A well perhaps? There was no wall or railing around the hole. Instead there were four large, red cushioned chairs with high golden backs. In one of them was what at first glance appeared to be appeared to be a heap of black cloth but was, on closer inspection, an old woman wrapped in a heavy, rather dirty-looking shawl. Her face was so excessively wrinkled it was hard to make out much in the way of features bar two sparking black eyes.
‘Ah, a visitor’ she said, in a wavering, cracked voice that sounded as if every syllable hurt her throat.
From the depths of her shawl, a collection of gnarled fingers that made up a hand appeared and waved towards the chair facing her, on the opposite side of the hole.
‘Assuming that you haven’t come here to declare your undying love to me’ she said. ‘You may as well make yourself comfortable.
The old woman suddenly spat on the floor. The saliva sizzled on the paving stone at her feet.
‘Unless you actually are in love with me?’ she added.
‘No’ said Phillip, quicker and louder than he meant to. ‘Err…no, I mean I don’t even know who you are’
‘Ah. Sensible boy. Or man. Either way, you would have to be insane to love me. And I have had quite enough of the insane’
Phillip really wasn’t sure what to say without insulting her.
The wrinkled face seemed to submerge into the black cloth but her voice carried on speaking.
‘A man used to come here every day asking for directions to a castle. I told him time and again that I didn’t know where it was but he wouldn’t listen’
‘I live in a castle’ offered Phillip. Even as he said it, he was aware of how feeble it sounded.
The face re-appeared.
‘Do you? Well, it’s nice for some I suppose. Anyway, sit down. Just looking at someone standing up for so long exhausts me these days’
Phillip made his way cautiously to the chair she had pointed at. It did look very comfortable. Beside the chair he noticed was a small stool on which lay a silver platter of fruit. He felt his stomach rumble and for the first time since entering the Library, he found that he was hungry. How long had it been since he had last eaten?
He lowered himself into the chair, aware of his wings folding automatically behind him. He leant forward slightly and looked down at the opening. After a few feet of plain brickwork, there was only blackness. No clue at all as to what lay beneath.
‘What’s down there?’ he asked?
Something that might have been a smile quivered over the old woman’s thin lips.
‘The history section. You knew this whole pace is a library, did you?’
‘Yes, the Giantess explained it to me’
‘Well if anyone would know, she would’
The woman sighed sadly.
‘I’d like to go down there myself one day. Though I don’t know. Too many bad memories perhaps’
‘Is there just you here?’ asked Phillip.
Are you going to ask me if I get lonely?’
Phillip studied her for a moment. She didn’t look as if she’d welcome pity.
Good. If I need someone to talk to, I have them’
One of her fingers – or was it just one long fingernail? – pointed upwards.
Sitting back in his chair, Phillip looked up. Through the slit in his visor he saw that the ceiling was a dome of dark green glass. He couldn’t make out much through the glass, but he had the sense of shapes slowly moving above them. Around the top of the room, there ran a wide balcony. At the four points of the compass, exactly in line with the chairs, were four stone lions. Their bodies were green and as weathered as the old woman herself.
‘More lions’ said Phillip quietly. ‘Do they talk?’
‘Of course. All the lions in the Library talk’
‘Are they the…’ Phillip searched for the right word. ‘Are they the Lords of this place?’
She cackled. It sounded like something being strangled.
‘No. They’re the Librarians. They know everything about the place but they’re not in charge’
A rather alarming though occurred to Phillip.
‘Are you?’ he asked. This was a place of madness. Were they so mad that they had put a woman in charge? And worse still, an old and ugly one?’
She laughed again. He really wished she wouldn’t.
‘No, no. I was sent here to regret. I’m not in charge of anything, much less the Library’
There followed an exhalation of wind that was more appalling than anything he had ever smelt in his life.
‘Sorry about that’ she said. ‘Sorrow does unpleasant things to the stomach’
It was a few moments before Phillip could reply.
‘What…’ he began and broke off coughing.
‘Don’t worry’ the old woman said sympathetically. ‘The smell will clear in a moment. It’s not a particularly bad one really’
‘Is it…is it not?’
‘’Well, you’re still alive aren’t you? Anyway you were going to ask me something. Probably you want to know what it is I have been sent here to regret’
Phillip found himself looking down at the platter of fruit again. He really was terribly hungry. If only he could raise his visor.
‘Well’ demanded the old woman. ‘Do you want to know or not?’
Phillip sighed to himself. At home he was always being told to listen to old people, but they were normally men with long grey beards, not farting old women.
‘Go on then’
She sat up a little.
‘I was one of a group of wild women’ she said. ‘We roamed the forgotten places of the world, seeking adventure and challenge and above all, knowledge. We had menfolk too but they were not so bold. Give them a tree to lay under and they were happy. But we women…oh we were fearless. We roamed the land and the skies, always out of sight, always seeking to see and learn more. We wore different forms, taking on the shape of others so that we might learn about them. We became the wisest of creatures, able to heal with a touch and, if we had to, where we saw cruelty being done, kill with a word’
Phillip tried to imagine this old woman as wise and fearless. It wasn’t as hard as he would have thought. A word came to his mind and before he could stop himself, it was on his lips.
The wrinkled head nodded in its hood.
‘Oh yes. That is what you would call it. But none of your fires for us boy. We were too clever for that’
The woman’s voice became sad. ‘But as I learnt, that was our great sin. I was captured by a great Lord. Locked away in one of his wine cellars. And every day he came to me and told me how ugly I was and how wrong I had been to seek to know the world. How wisdom had made me disgusting. Day after day. And even though I believed him and told him I believed him, he tortured me in a dozen new ways every day and told me I was not yet sorry enough. Until one day I woke to find myself not in the cellar, but here. And I realized that he must have sent me here to live in regret’
Phillip found he was shaking with rage. Whoever this man had been, his cruelty to the old woman was unforgivable. Phillip knew that at the castle, prisoners were sometimes tortured but never like that. At least, he hoped not. You didn’t prolong someone’s suffering any more than necessary and certainly not just to please yourself. What kind of a man did this lord think he was?
The woman held up her stick like arms, the shawl falling away to reveal grey skin.
‘Do you know what room this is?’ she asked bitterly.
‘The romance section!’
She picked up a book at her feet and threw it across the room, over the huge hole, to land with surprising accuracy on Phillip’s lap. Looking down he saw the title on the front: Emma by Charlotte Bronte – She Marries Well.
‘All the lost romantic endings’ spat the woman. ‘And me among them, without any chance of love. That is why he sent me here! To regret that I am unlovable’
‘I don’t think he did send you here’ said Phillip. He was remembering what the Giantess had told him earlier.
‘What?’ demanded the old woman.
He was thinking it through as he spoke.
‘People sometimes come to the Library by accident or because they are needed’ Phillip told her. ‘But they aren’t sent here to be punished’
She was staring at him, her eyes suddenly wider and almost glowing.
‘Who told you that?’
The old woman sat back, rubbing her chin with her gnarled hand.
‘And she would know’ she said quietly. ‘So why am I here?’
Phillip thought for a moment. And then an idea struck him. Could it really be that simple?
‘You said you used to seek wisdom?’
‘Yes. Knowledge was the prize above all other’
‘Well…wouldn’t it make sense for you have to be brought here then? To a library with books that couldn’t be read anywhere else? Maybe you were brought here to learn’
The old woman made a strange gargling noise. Then her eyes slid shut and she sat entirely motionless. A minute passed. Then another. Phillip began to wonder if she had died.
Suddenly her arms emerged again from the shawl. The fingers gripped the arm of the chair and slowly, painfully, she levered herself up from the chair. The hood fell back from her head to reveal short white hair that seemed to be standing on end. Her eyes were definitely glowing now, a deep amber.
She spoke in a voice that seemed deeper than before.
‘We were the wisest of creatures. We travelled under the ground and through the skies in search of understanding. We were…’ She took a long, deep breath. ‘We…were…not disgusting. We were magnificent!’
She stared at Phillip.
‘Do you believe me?’
Phillip had grown up being taught that women should be timid and playful, not wise and powerful. And yet he knew that this woman, with all her wisdom, had been magnificent.
‘Yes. I believe you’
‘He said I was ugly’ she said. ‘The lord who captured me. He said I was like an evil crone from a story. And so that was who I became’
Phillip remembered something she had said before. ‘You said you wore the forms of others?’
‘Yes, to better understand them’
‘Well, maybe this…isn’t your true form? Maybe you became a crone because he told you that’s who you were’
She smiled and he saw surprising long sharp teeth. Her face seemed to be changing, the surface become smoother and darker. He swore her neck was getting not just thicker but longer.
‘Do you think I am ugly?’ she asked. ‘Be honest’
He hesitated and then:
‘Yes. In some ways. But in others…not at all’
‘You really are quite bright’ she said. ‘For a man’
‘Thank you, I think’
She laughed and the sound seemed to roll around the chamber.
‘Oh it’s meant kindly. The man who imprisoned me couldn’t even read. His servants had to read his letters to him and then explain them three times’
‘Perhaps that’s why he was cruel to you’
Her skin was even darker now and seemed to be turning a shade of emerald green. She moved towards the hole in the middle of the room, standing right at the edge. Her arms had disappeared into her cloak and her neck was getting even longer. Her nose was flattening while the rest of her face became sharper.
Phillip got quickly to his feet.
‘Be careful’ he warned. ‘Don’t fall’
He might be able to fly after her if she fell over the edge but he doubted he could catch her before she hit the bottom. Assuming that there was a bottom.
Her deep voice had a new, drawn out hissing quality to it.
‘I am surrounded by books of love’ she said ‘But I would learn…history!’
Her shawl fell away. He saw not a torso and legs but a long scaly body ending in a tail. Her arms had disappeared. She opened her mouth and a long forked tongue flicked from her mouth.
‘Thank you boy!’ she said. ‘You have helped me see me as I am’
Her glowing eyes seemed to bore into him and Phillip was scared now. Would she eat him ? Wasn’t that what strange women always did in stories?
She must have read his thoughts.
‘Don’t be frightened’ she told him. ‘I’ll not hurt you. And I’ll give you a gift in return for what you have done. I give you claws!’
Phillip cried out in pain as his hands seemed to burn as though plunged into fire. The next moment the pain was gone. He stared down at his gauntleted hands. The silver metal had changed shape. Where there had been five fingers there were three, each one with a long metal talon at the end.
‘Use them wisely’ she said. ‘You’ll need them in the History section’
She leant out over the edge of the hole, further and further until she suddenly pitched forward. But she didn’t fall. Instead, her long, scaly body slithered effortlessly down the side of the well and into the darkness.
Phillip watched her go and then stared back down at his hands. Wings and claws he thought. Am I being slowly turned into an animal? What next, a tail?
And then he remembered that he had, once again, forgotten to ask about the goblin’s book. He really wasn’t doing well on his mission! Still perhaps he could catch her up.
He looked down into the dark hole. How bad could it really be down there? Bad enough that he might need claws it seemed. And yet, he wanted to see what was waiting for him next.
Phillip stretched out his wings and took flight. He circled the room once, noticing as he did that one of the lions had vanished. Then he flew down into the well, down towards the past.
Damian Mark Whittle