“The Telling of Tales” # 13
Who Dreams of Dragons?
By Andre Norton
For Anne McCaffrey
(As far as we know this was the last story Andre ever wrote.)
“This is a new one Aunt Kat. Where did you get it?”
Ashley surveyed the white dragon, just the right size to fit comfortably into one’s hand. The carefully carved scales had a semblance of flitting rainbows though she had not moved it. Katlin Rosswell, mistress of dragon lore, leaned forward.
“You’ve gone right to the heart of the matter, Ashley. We didn’t get it – it was just here yesterday morning. No one had entered in the gift book, nor will anyone admit being responsible for its appearance. It’s made of mother-of-pearl and it certainty is a work of art. Robbi and I went through the trash barrel, down to the bottom. There was no box, nor wrappings, to explain it.”
She moved on to her desk where a collection of papers was piled untidily, picking up one sheet after another, glancing at each before she discarded it. Suddenly, holding the last she had taken up, Katlin Rosswell moved closer to the desk lamp which she switched on.
“No!” Her denial was sharp and sudden.
“What’s the matter?” Ashley joined her to look down at the sheet of paper. Though she was seeing it upside down it was plain that the lines of printing there were not ordered as they should be. There were gaps here and there as if words had been erased and in those gaps were touches of brilliant red, green, blue and yellow such as crayons might have left.
The older woman stroked the page to flatten it more.
“King Fristan” she was reading aloud, “reached for the serpent – Serpent?” With the tip of her finger she pointed down a couple of lines. Now she indicated a purple slash: “Six or Eight make sure it’s straight.”
Having read, she looked up at Ashley sternly. “Who was here this morning?”
“She said her name was Winifred Monck,” Ashley answered readily. “There,” she pointed to a yellow slip protruding from a pocket of the desk pad. “Said she wanted to leave a note. But I was here with her all the time and all she did was write that.”
Aunt Kat had the note out and unfolded. She frowned as she read aloud.
“M. W. Monck – 6 Limington Court. Hmm – Limington Court.” Once more she rounded on Ashley, “What did she look like?”
“She was kind of old – well, her hair was white – what you could see of it. She had a knitted cap pulled down over it as if this was winter. Her face – her face was just plain ordinary. She had a big old cape, not a coat which came clear down to the floor. Still – she wasn’t any bag woman – I had a queer feeling somehow that she was someone important.”
Aunt Kat had sat down behind the desk. She brought out a large MS envelope from the lower drawer and slipped the page into it only to find more colored markings on the next one below. In the end she uncovered five such and they were stored carefully away in the envelope along with the yellow message slip.
“I understand you are going over to the Hobby exhibit with Sue Rogers”.
Ashley nodded. “Her mother entered a quilt her great-grandmother Swift had made – clear back around the time of the Civil War.”
Aunt Kat smiled. “That has visited about every exhibit in this part of the country for the last ten years.” She commented. “It is a family –”
She had only gotten so far when Ashley interrupted. “The dragon – the pearl dragon!”
Where there had rested, only moments earlier, in a shaft of sunlight, there was nothing now but the well polished surface of the table. Katlin was on her feet staring at the empty space.
“But you did not take it!” Her voice had risen a little.
“No!” Ashley replied quickly. “I never touched it at all.”
Her Aunt came from behind the desk, moved to the table. For some reason she was pointing at all which rested there now repeating names for each. “Chinese Fighting fish of Cinnabar – Willard’s birthday present this year. Carved ivory needle case from Looie, she found that in London. Mud figure of Chinese poet getting drunk – Spanish comb set in brilliants –”
Silent now, she stood just looking down at small treasures. Ashley stooped, and was searching the floor, though she could not imagine what had knocked the figure from the table. It should show up well against the rich dark colors of the Persian rug. There was nothing there.
Katlin had gone to her knees and was peering around the feet of the nearest chair which were carved in the form of great claws clasping balls. Even running fingers between the claws of the nearest foot. Ashley straightened up. There was no white dragon there, she was sure of it.
As her line of sight again flicked at the table top she stiffened.
“It can’t be!”
On the very spot of gleaming mahogany where it had been before stood the mother-of-pearl scaled dragon.
Staring at the dragon, then at Ashley, and back again at the figure, Katlin pulled herself to her feet and sat down in the very chair she had been examining. Ashley had retreated a little from the table burdened by curios.
“It was gone!”
Aunt Kat’s voice was harsh as she answered, after a pause which went on too long. “Yes” – just one word, no attempt at any explanation. Then she added, after another long moment of silence: “We can bear witness for each other. However I can do without such a trick again.”
She arose and went to the table. For a moment she hesitated before she gathered up her long white skirt and with that wrapped it well around the figure she picked it up. Ashley drew close, obeying Katlin’s gesture. The dragon was laid full length on the desk top to rest on a sheet of unmarked paper. Deftly Katlin swathed the paper about the fantastic creature and proceeded to use sealing tape backward and forward until she had a package the shape of its contents thoroughly hidden from sight.
“Make note of this, if you will, Ashley –” that was the voice she used when commenting on some important point of research. “Top drawer – left side.” She jerked the indicated drawer open roughly and brought it entirely out, to be lifted to the desk top. Into the space from which it had come she pushed her hand well in.
Ashley noted now her aunt’s heavy breathing. Then she heard the click and Katlin withdrew her hand, caught up the packet and put it into the drawer space. There came another lick. Katlin’s hand was out. With both of them, she reinserted the drawer and pushed it carefully closed, level with desk front.
“So –” Now her attention switched to Ashley. “You know my work.” A statement not a question. She pushed back her chair, turned it on its rollers a fraction so she was now facing the wall behind her, covered with shelves packed with books in bright colored jackets. “Thirty-five years of it. Two Hugos, a Nebula, – First Fantasy Award – all of it. I’ve dealt with fantasy, talked about, lectured, had two seasons of a TV series which they are talking about reviving. If I had been alone and had repeated to someone what just happened, as well I might, what could have been the result? The old lady – t’is a pity she has – as the saying use to be – gone around the bend. She’s taken to believe what she writes about is real.”
“I do not know what is real,” she moved, drawing herself straight up in her chair. “But I shall make every effort to find out –”
Ashley near jumped as the phone nearer to her than to Katlin rang. Her aunt signaled for her to take it.
“Yes, Yes – Sue. I don’t know –” To leave Aunt Kat here alone she should not do that. However her aunt was nodding vigorously shaping words Ashley was not able to translate. “In twenty minutes?”
Katlin continued to nod. “All right, I’ll be ready.”
Before Ashley could utter any protest, Katlin spoke. “There is something you can do –” she said quickly. “They are an estate sale in connection with the show. I had intended to attend but now there are other things to be done. “I’ve heard that they some very old books that belonged to the great-grandmother Edgehill. Look them over. I want very much to have any which deal with local history, have heard that she had some unusual ones. I will call Hannah Berryman – she is in charge of that sale and is always ready to help me with references. I’ll tell her that you are acting for me. Will you do this, Ashley?”
It was the sort of request she could always expect from her Aunt. To hear her make it was reassuring, making one believe that what had happened here was only a trick. One which Aunt Kat would speedily solve, Ashley almost had a feeling of relief.
“Of course,” she agreed. Catching sight of the outer world through the window behind her hostess she added, “If the weather lets us –”
Katlin laughed sounding just as she always did. “Don’t worry about that. They are using the old Acker barn to exhibit most things this year.” She was looking down at the surface of the desk before her and paused, then she spoke again rather swiftly as if she were afraid she would forget something of importance. “Ashley – no – I don’t think I need to say this to you. Our adventure is off the record as the reporters say –”
“Yes.” Ashley agreed. But it hurt a little – did Aunt Katlin think she would tell such a story?
She was still unhappy over that when Sue arrived in the red pickup the Rogers’ clan used. Apparently Sue was looking forward to some luck in buying for the shop at her mother’s Bed and Breakfast. She also was flushed with irritation and was only too quick to spill out the source of that.
“I tell you an old biddy like that shouldn’t be allowed behind the wheel of a car – car, it was more a pile of junk! If she has any insurance on it I’m the next home-coming queen! It was just plain weird – like it was out of Buffy – you know the Vampire killer.”
Her eyes were on the road before her with care however Sue was intent on what she had seen.
“That old wreck swerved around the corner. One of the back doors came open as if it had never really been shut and out fell this basket, to hit a hedge bush – she was that close to the edge. It opened, too, and out came this white thing. I swear to you Ashley it was a lizard of some kind. The old hag didn’t try to stop the car, she didn’t even have her hands on the wheel – was just waving them around in the air. Good thing she wasn’t going fast when the car hit against a fence post and stopped. Come on another foot or so more and we’d have met head on. I was trying to get out of her way.”
Sue pointed with her chin, still holding her tight grip on the car wheel. “I don’t think the fender was scrapped. I got right out and went to see – thought maybe she needed help she was acting so queer. And where did I land? Right smack down on my behind, she shoved me out of the way as she got out, paid me no attention but ran back to that basket – went hunting on the ground around it, and the caught up the white thing – never did see it clearly – I got there, asked if I could help. She never even looked at me while she rolled whatever it was up in a ball and pressed it tight against her.”
“I went closer, I really thought she might be hysterical or something. Some people get queer over pets – My cousin Ida kept a black rooster in the house – said they talked together –” Sue shook her head and took a deep breath. “Well, she looked up at me, had a cap pulled tight down on her head so you could see only her face. She was real old and she made a sort of face at me. Then she brushed right by me without saying anything. Slammed me out of her way – and did she jest me away! Look!”
Sue had glanced down at her right hand she loosed her grip and held it away from the wheel, flexing the fingers. A little above the wrist there showed a dark smear and the beginning of a bruise.
Crows – Ravens – what have you. Did they not appear as suggestions of evil in fantasy? Ashley had typed notes for Aunt Kat a good number of summers now. Surely she could remember – crows, ravens of evil – dragons to eat damsels – she knew well what appeared being normal in fantasy. Dragons –!
She was scowling. “You can see ahead a’ fairly good distance here,” she pointed out. “But my old woman and her rambling wreck had just disappeared.” She paused, when Ashley did not speak she added: “All right, just tell me I dreamed it all – if it that can be done while driving.”
Ashley thought of a disappearing dragon and shook her head. However she could not Answer Sue with her own strange see-not see adventure.
“Is there any turn off along here?”
“Just the one we’re going to pass shortly. It’s been closed off months now – otherwise we’d have a straight go to the barn. We have to circle around by the river now.”
It was a very few moments later that she did point out a light spot in the brush wall which she said was the closed turn off.
Sue said nothing more as she aimed the car down the road and hoped they did not have much farther to go. Ashley glanced once at her watch – fifteen to one – the cold lunch offered by the committee must be near over, the exhibit would be open at one.
“Eleanor Chesley was making her chicken salad,” Sue said suddenly. “She never will give anyone the secret of her dressing.”
Chicken salad – dressing – Ashley swallowed again and tried to quickly remember some feature of the North River Presbyterian Ladies’ specialties. Chocolate – those cookies filled with chocolate – Higgins – Rice –no, Pebbles. “I hope there are some of Mrs. Pebbles cookies left.”
The trees no longer fenced them in. They had passed what looked to be a log cabin fallen into rotting, displaced logs. From that the scene changed abruptly to a house some distance back from the road. Its walls were so tightly covered with a vine whose green leaves had a blackish gleam. Clearly nothing had been done to clear the vegetation and a large tree lay on the ground to bar the way to the door.
A structure on the other side of the road showed only a suggestion that it might once have been a house. What could be seen was blackened and charred by fire.
Ashley shivered. This was the third summer she had spent with Aunt Kat. She had never seen the dead town before nor even heard it spoken of. “Is it all like this – deserted and broken up?” she asked.
“I dunno. We go through here to reach Avery but we’ve never stopped. Not a place one wants to go poking through I would say. It is still marked on the old road map Mick has up on his wall; Limington Court is what it’s named there. Let’s get out of here!”
For some reason Ashley found herself staring as intently ahead as if she were the driver. Sue finally slowed for a corner and they headed north, another turn brought them on one of the state roads, across that into a lane. Ahead they could see cars parked, two long picnic tables still burdened, and perfectly ordinary people preparing to enter the huge red barn.
Ashley found herself trying to get the rest of a sandwich eaten one bite at a time while also attempting to return greetings in a fairly acceptable manner. Mostly people wanted to know where Aunt Kat was and she could only offer the weak excuse of busy and that her Aunt planned to be there later. Sue had been claimed to help transport some large boxes into the barn and they had had no time to discuss the mystery on the road.
Having finished the sandwich, and accepted a napkin laden with a trio of cookies, Ashley stood off a little to view the decorations forming a mural of sorts on the barn wall. The portrait of an intricate quilt she recognized. The model for that had been three times winner at quilt shows last year. Next to it was a column of HEX signs – She swallowed the last of the cookies and wiped her hands on the napkin. Nice to have a drink – but she couldn’t go in drinking. She turned aside to drop the napkin in one of the trash bins.
“------- took them out.”
Ashley made a little face. She knew that speaker – only too well. Bertha Ray was on the School Board, also the Library Board, and the President of the Ladies’ Aid Committee at the Church. She also was the personification of Queen Victoria and was seldom amused by anything.
“What did Vernon say?” asked her tall, thin companion of the moment, a stranger to Ashley.
“Some stupid thing about how popular the book was and that it had won prizes. It doesn’t matter if it has won the Noble Award. It is certainly not the sort of thing we want on the library shelves – witches – dragons – Black magic. NO! Then Miss Withers talks about good writing and the like. And I just cry evil was evil no matter how you dressed it up. The best thing that could happen to Summerset would be to have that woman move out of here. Oh – I’ll have to be on the run. You know that chest of books they found in the Edgehill attic – well, Marvin, he went and told Mrs. Berryman to sell them. They should have just dumped them in a good fire. And I am going to see that that’s where they go – but I’m to judge the Junior Quilters first.”
Best go and see Mrs. Berryman herself. Ashley entered the barn door stopping only to pay her dollar entrance money. She was sure that Miss Ray had been talking about one of Aunt Kats books. Maybe Drake and Dragon that was the latest. If so – time then for another letter from Bridget Boyd. Ashley grinned. Bridget was her own creation. Though she had never said so she was sure Aunt Kat knew who that fervent supporter was. She might have her Aunt’s gift for fiction but her defense and explanation of Halloween customs had been very carefully researched.
She did not allow a halt near the quilt display though that was one of her favorite places, nor a side visit to Leslie Morgan’s jewelry display. The open spaces were becoming crowded but she saw now the sign announcing the estate sale and was able to locate a table, much carven as to legs, on which was piled what could only be books with dull scuffed covers.
Ashley sniffed. There was a queer smell around the untidy piles of books. One or two had no backs left – were just dirty and raw looking. She knew that this was treasure hunting in a way but she had never been sent to do it all by herself before, just stood by and carried the choices Aunt Kat made.
“Winfred Garland’s Girlhood – “ she read the title of the top volume on the pile nearest her though it was so dim it was hard to make out the old fancy letters. As she picked it up the loose cover flipped open.
“To our dear Mattie for her fifteenth birthday, the Twenty-forth of June, 1872”
Ashley smoothed the cover back into place and reached for the next volume. In the end she had six books, one very much worth the worse for wear, which she thought Aunt Kat might want. There was a very old note book with an inscription that it had belonged to Howard Write, a school teacher. But the one which hardly hung together seemed to be a scrapbook in which there were cards and letters, as well as faded pictures. One of the others was what Aunt Kat had spoken of a local history of the town – the date was 1900 on the title page.
“Finding what you want, Ashley?” Mrs. Berryman came by her on her way to the register.
“I think my Aunt could use these –” she indicated those she had piled by themselves on a nearby piecrust table.
Mrs. Berryman looked over her selections. “I’d agree with that. Suppose we just them over here in this cupboard her to see if she does get a chance to come in later.”
Ashley saw them into the cupboard and then she dared ask a question: “What made Miss Ray sat these should be burnt?”
“She said that, did she?” Mrs. Berryman shook her head. “Well I did see her with her nose in one last Tuesday when Vernon brought the box into the church. This one I think.” She took up a book with a thick black cover from the table.
“But that’s just a cookbook!” protested Ashley.
“It’s a little more. Two people used it at different times. See – There’s a page of recipes, yes – but over here is something else in a different handwriting altogether.”
The handwriting she indicated was very dim. Ashley took the book closer to one of the lamps set alight to show off a Tiffany shade.
“Do not call upon that in the north wood for what dwelt there has no kindness for any Edgehill. Be certain that the proper call be used.” She looked up at Mrs. Berryman confused. “That sounds as if it were copied out of the Lovecraft Tales, a ghost story or horror one.”
“I would say perhaps someone was trying to write such in the old days and just set down bits.”
“But –” she looked to Mrs. Berryman. “I didn’t see this before. Just the recopies – things such as sweet potato pie and mint tea–”
“The recopies are mainly at the beginning. And a lot of the other material is very dim. Do you want this one for your Aunt also?”
Ashley nodded. “Indeed I do.”
She felt uneasy as she saw Mrs. Berryman put it with the others. How could she have made such a mistake? She was sure that she had examined the book more carefully than that. Uneasily she glanced down at her watch – nearly three – She did want to see the quilts and maybe the Winston dollhouses, and she had heard that Clara Dodds had added some stuffed animals to the doll display.
However she was uneasy enough to once again check everything left on the book table – most that was left were old school books and fiction – and none of them, though she shuffled pages from one cover to another, had anything written in.
That musty-dusty order which hung about the book display seemed to be growing stronger – then Ashley felt a push which sent her against the edge of the table and she half turned indignantly. The pusher was already on her way to Mrs. Berryman and all one could see was a knitted cap pulled down as it might be if the wearer were in the midst of a winter storm, and a body so muffled in a cape it might belong to anyone or anything.
This, the girl was sure, was the Monck woman who had wanted to Aunt Kat – and – and – maybe Sue’s wacky driver who knew how to disappear on a open lane. She was not sure why but she headed after her.
There was certainly no mistaking that cracked voice which possessed an almost crow-like stridency.
“----Corrie’s books, that’s what I’m talking about! And I don’t mean those nabby-dabby things you’ve got on that there table neither. She promised them to me – Now that lubloy of a lawyer says Corrie didn’t leave no will and, less she did, promises she made don’t mean nothing. That were never no Corries’s ways of doing things. You people sell her books to someone else and it’s just stealin’ ain’t never done anybody any good.”
“Mr. Hatyers is in charge of the estate legally. He himself turned then in to be sold –”
“Which by the looks of things you have gone and did. Who got them? I got a right to say I’ll pay what they paid and take them back.”
“I’m very sorry – Miss – Mrs –”
Ashley had come up right behind the queer old woman and Mrs. Berryman had seen her but she gave no sign she had. Which was fair—after all Ashley had selected what Aunt Kat wanted before this Miss Monck or whoever she was showed up.
“Sorry is, and sorry was, and sure sorry will be!” Proclaimed the would be customer. “Better you do some good thinking on that, woman. There’s them one does never want to get wrong-sided with.” With a jerk of her cloak she was off, apparently not sighting Ashley at all.
“Who is she?” Ashley asked. “Is her name Monck?” Quickly she explained the puzzling visit to Aunt Kat.
“She’s one of the local mysteries,” returned Mrs. Berryman. “Mostly they call her trash-bag Granny. She lives down on Limington Court – or had a house there before the big storm two years ago when lightning struck it. I’ve heard that she sort of camps out now in the Shelly place. That’s owned by some out-of-towner who never visits here. There was once a Monck family down there right enough – provided a lot of scary stories for the youngsters – the later ones the woman were supposed to be witches. They died close together of the flue back in the 40s. Oh, Monica, she looked past Ashley to hail a lady who was inspecting some figurines on the shelves of a small display case, “It didn’t turn up–”
She was halfway across the space between them now to deliver what was apparently a disappointing message. Ashley left also, but not before she had passed the cupboard where the books had been placed and made sure that it was securely closed.
Aunt Kat might even get a new idea for a book from all this she thought as she started on towards the quilt display. She had done a book – A Shadow Dark As Night – a couple years ago about a vampire who was a witch and had a whole town scared.
Ashley hoped to run into Sue but had no sight of her. Somehow the quilt show did not appear as bright and interesting as they usually did and Ashley did not push on to where the various other pieces of needle work were carefully displayed. Instead of old book odor the scent of candles became stronger now and she suddenly stopped, caught by a half glance at the rows of such set out to entice. Those lilies – she had to admit they were perfect. One could well believe that they were indeed living flowers at the height of their glory. But what Ashley had noticed was not a flower!
Not again! No – a candle – a gleaming dragon of wax with a pearl like surface. Aunt Kat must see that.
“Hi Ashley! Back for the summer?” The boy wearing the T-shirt which proclaimed the freedom of a small drove of horses rose up behind the candle display.
“Rufus – your Mom put you in charge this time?”
He shrugged. “She’s got us organized this year – regular hours on and off. But we’re doing okay. Like the lilies?”
“They’re grand –” Ashley ran a forefinger along just below the tiger lily candle. “But I’m really interested in this.” Her finger stopped below the dragon. “I want it for my Aunt –”
Rufus nodded. “Yeah? She got another Weredragon book coming out? She sure can write to give a guy the shivers. This is a try out for Mom – there’s just the one. She sure hunted to get what she thought was the right color. It’s marked fifteen dollars–”
Ashley was already delving into her belt purse. “Can you wrap it up well? Sometimes wax breaks easily.”
She wanted to ask if Mrs. Burns had copied the dragon from one she had seen but that was kind of a pushy question. Better let sleeping dragon lie. Oddly now she suddenly felt impatient, that she wanted to get away. Every new tissue wrapping Rufus put around the purchase added to her discomfort. Luckily the lilies suddenly drew attention and she just had time to pay for the candle and pack it away in her purse before one of the newcomers started asking questions concerning the flowers. With a wave to Rufus she left.
There came a sudden blast from the loud speaker at the judging stand and people turned that way.
Miss Ray was jerking the speaker down closer to her mouth: Has anyone seen a small black kitten without a tail? One is missing from the Harmon Pet Center. If seen or found please return to Dale Harmon at once.” Now she spoke even louder with a pause between each word as if to underline it: Small Manx kitten – black, no tail, return to or report to the Harmon Pet center.”
Tough, Ashley thought. With this crowd the poor little thing is probably scared to death. Wonder if Aunt Kat has come yet. She made a quick trip down the length of the barn, ending again at the book stall and there indeed she found her aunt standing with one hand on a pile of books – the books she herself had selected – as if claiming them against all comers. She did not know why exactly but at the moment Ashley shot a quick glance around half expecting to see also the woman from the dead street. But trash-bag Granny was not in evidence. Aunt Kat looked up, saw her and beckoned.
“Excellent – sheer luck.” Aunt Kat had produced two large canvas tote bags and was slipping the books into them, making equal loads to the best of her ability.
Ashley had turned her head – had she or had she not seen something like a black shadow – or the edge of a long cape – in the now crowded center of the barn?
“You expect Sue? Planning to stay for the square dance?”
If the trash-bag Granny, or who ever she was caught sight of Aunt Kat’s tote bags and their contents – and with Mrs. Ray hanging around – the might indeed be trouble.
The girl hooked the handles of the nearest bag over her arm and was reaching for the other. “No – Listen, I think we’d better get out of here – I’ll tell you why later.”
Aunt Kat did not yield the second tote to her, “The car’s parked down by the fence. I promised to see the new flower candles Myra Burns has this year. No, I’ll keep this.” She drew back at Ashley’s second try to reach the tote, instead set it on her own arm. “Be with you soon.”
She was away again to speak to Mrs. Berryman. At least, thought Ashley with a small feeling of relief, she hasn’t asked questions. But that was always Kat’s way – she listened and she understood no matter who was talking. Within minutes – and some not to gentle pushing – the girl was outside the barn. For just a moment she stood gazing at the tent on her right from which now and then sounded a bark.
Dale Harmon always hoped to find some who were willing to adopt her orphans at these country things – though he was very particular about anyone who appeared interested. She hoped he would get the black kitten back.
She moved from the lane leading up to the barn, a narrow way which was crowded now, and struck out over the weed thick verge. The field set aside for parking was about filled and there were a number of cars along the fence. There was Aunt Kat’s familiar jeep which was kept for country driving and next to it – how could a car which looked so battered still be driven? The one which had aroused Sue’s sharp feeling – it might just be. But to have it beside Aunt Kat’s could well mean the same sort of unpleasant meeting she was trying to avoid.
Her approach was slowed. Should she go back towards the barn and hope to meet Aunt Kat or stay where she was? Mrs. Berryman had certainly not told the stranger who had the books and so trash-bag Granny might not learn that until they were safely gone.
The sun was very hot – better move over there and just sit down. The grass had been beaten flat and the shadow of the battered car reached across the gap between it and the jeep. Ashley settled the tote to lean against one of the latter’s wheels and was about to drop down beside it when her head went back and she gasped. She heard – or was it she felt? But it had reached her, such a wave of fear as set her trembling so that she had to catch at the fender of the jeep and hold on while the world jolted around her.
She stared at the old wreck of a car. Crouching down she tried to see under it. And she was still crouched so when Aunt Kat came around the back of the wreck to confront her.
“What in the world –”
Ashley glance in her direction but made no verbal answer, swinging up her right hand to point at the ancient vehicle. However at the same time – It wasn’t anything to be felt this time – she was certain she heard a thin cry of fear and she was at the side door of the car her hand on the handle in quick answer. A moment later Katlin was beside her.
The window was cracked as well as smeared. Ashley near flattened her nose against the murky pane trying to see more clearly. Resting on the back seat, the covering of which was slit in a number of places, was a box – or rather a small cage. The front was a cover of wire netting and, even as Ashley centered on it, the cage seemed to quiver and once more came that cry.
Ashley twisted and jerked at the door handle. Once more the cage moved a fraction closer to the edge. Something within hit the restraint of the netting and caught there. The cage moved a little more under the tugging. And Ashley pounded on the door latch with her fist.
Kat’s hand settled over hers. “Ashley, what is it?”
“I don’t know – but it’s in that cage and it’s frightened – terribly frightened!”
At last the handle began to turn – at least it wasn’t locked. The relief from that discovery seemed to give her an extra strength of pull and the girl got the door open. A strange, unpleasant odor puffed out and a small cry of sheer terror reached their ears.
Ashley stumbled forward and gasped as she scraped her shin.
She landed with her face not far from the side of the cage. At the same time the paw caught there twisted loose, and she was looking straight into the terror filled eyes of a black kitten. One of the perky ears was dribbling blood from a deep slit.
There was swift movement from the other end of the cage. The kitten squeaked, shrinking back against the box wall. However the predator ‘s pounce was stopped almost before it had begun. Without thinking it through Ashley slapped the end of the prison farthest from the cowering kitten. Heavily toothed jaws open to snap in her direction and the scaled body tried to leap, only to be jerked back.
Ashley caught at the cage and edged back. Somehow she managed to be free of the car into full daylight. When there was room Aunt Kat helped and they set the netted box on the ground. Ashley looked up at her companion.
“Do you see it?” she demanded.
Aunt Kat looked at her blankly. She might have been confronted by something she could not honestly believe existed.
“White one,” Ashley persisted, “Mother-of-pearl one – alive –”
The kitten cried pitifully again.
“Got to get that out –” She ran hands around the upper edge of the cage seeking some exit.
“Yes.” Aunt Kat pushed close to her, dragging her belt purse to the fore and shaking out of that a small shower of card case, change purse, several crumpled Kleenex, eyewear and, finally, one of her prized possessions – a well endowed Swiss Army Knife. A moment or two to chose from its bewildering array of encased tools and she was busy prying at the juncture of netting and wood just above where the kitten had taken refuge.
Then – only a short period of quick prying and pulling and the girl was holding the kitten who at first fought for freedom, subsiding at last into her hold, exhausted. The blood from the torn ear had marked Ashley’s T-shirt and she knew she must find help for the small animal as soon as possible.
However now, as she cuddled and gently restrained the kitten, her attention was mainly on the remaining occupant of the cage.
Aunt Kat pushed down the netting she has loosened. It was unbroken. There was a flash of white as the other captive jumped. The woman jerked back hand just in time.
“Can it get out?” Ashley wanted to know.
“Might – might not –”
The girl settled the kitten inside the T-shirt she pulled loose at the waist. Once more the handful of fur fought, needle tips of tiny claws showing through the material. With one hand cupped around the hidden prisoner, Ashley jerked the door of the car open to its widest extent.
She was ready to help as Katlin lifted the cage gingerly and somehow worked it back on the tattered seat. Then her aunt stood for a moment staring art it, for, once her controlling hold was gone, it began to shake again. Luckily she had started to turn when a gnarled length of wood, aimed at perhaps her head, swept on and Ashley was slammed back against the car, a long raking scratch opening down her arm.
The musty odor puffed out of the cape as the strange woman who appeared to haunt this day stumbled half into the back seat. Aunt Kat grabbed at her niece continuing to open space between the weird stranger and them both. She gave Ashley a vigorous push toward the jeep.
Trying to keep one hand protectively over the still faintly struggling bulge at her middle Ashley obeyed. She was gasping when she partly fell in the seat. Back at the other car the door was still open, half in, half out the black bundle of the cap was stilled. It’s wearer making no effort to rise. Aunt Kat took a couple of small steps in that direction, she might be going to offer help.
However she stopped, as, from the direction of the crumpled woman, came a spatter of what be words – though to Ashley those had no more meaning than cries of the crows. Aunt Kat was on the move again, covering the distance around the front of the jeep, the ground on the other side of the car. She scrambled into the driver’s seat by the girl.
“Seatbelt!” That was both a warning and an order.
Ashley dared to use both hands to draw that about her. With her sitting down she was sure the kitten could not crawl out.
The jeep snorted after its particular fashion and they were backing away from the fence. As they passed the other car Ashley was sure that the stranger had not moved.
Something did. A blot of white, on the other’s knitted cap, struggling to detach one long clawed foot from the loop of the wool. Then they were by. Luckily there had been a change in the number of visitors and Aunt Kat was able to pull out of the special parking area and bring them back to that road which was a collection of potholes in less time.
“Mr. Havens – the kitten –”
“No time for that now. You can call him when we get home.” Katlin hesitated a moment as they hit something of a bump in the road. When she spoke again her voice sounded hard and cold, “I don’t know just what is going on, however I am sure it is no good – maybe for all of us.”
“What – what’s it all about?” Ashley gave a start as a crow voice sounded out of the brush wall of the neglected road. “That woman, she wanted the books you took. But how did she know you had them – or was it that she knew we freed the kitten – –?”
She pulled up the T-shirt and brought the kitten out of hiding, It no longer fought but lay limp in her hand. “It’s –” Ashley burst out.
Aunt Kat aimed the jeep a little up the verge – she pulled the girls hand closer and leaned over it.
“No – not dead.” Was her answer. “But hold it out in the air. There’s a horse trough not far ahead and water.”
They were on their way again. Ashley nursing the fur scrap against her. Twice they had to reduce speed in order to scrape along the verge and let cars going the other way pass them. But at last they reached the way of ruined and deserted houses and Aunt Kat brought them into a wider space before a house which seemed intact, it lacked even the overgrown bushes and the brick supported vines to be seen elsewhere. And there was a double stretch of concrete which might once have suggested an ornamental stream. Water fed into one end halfway up the side, to disappear through a similar exit at the other end.
It was very quiet – all the confusing sounds of the hobby show were long gone. Even breezes avoided this place.
Ashley became aware of the silence as Aunt Kat, using the med-kit which was always a part of the jeep, washed the torn ear and cleaned the fur clumped with clots of blood. The kitten had its golden eyes wide open, fixed for the most part on Aunt Kat. But it remained limp, showing no fear of what was being done.
“That’s all we can do now,” Katlin observed. “We’ll take you to Bob Wells as soon as we can.” Out of her large bag came a folded bandana wrapped package from which she freed the square of material as soon as possible. Shaking it she drew it around the kitten and Ashley was certain she heard a scrap of a purr much muted.
Her Aunt showed no sign of swift return to the jeep. Out of her treasure bag she drew a folded cup, giving it a shake to open. She dipped it into the trough water then, after sloshing it around she poured that out, only to dip again. Holding the cup to Ashley:
“Drink up.” Only that, no explanation.
The girl obeyed. The water was quite cool. She had not realized that she was really thirsty until she gulped two mouthfuls. Then Aunt Kat took it from her and, having looked intently into the cup for a moment she also drank. Ashley as not only thirsty for water – she wanted to know what was happening, for she was very certain that something of importance was in progress. However before she could ask Aunt Kay spoke.
“The roots of fantasy are old, old beliefs. We who hunt through legends and folklore, even tales of those small communities of the more immediate past which are or have been less aware of the changes in daily life, must handle reports carefully. In fantasy the major point of action is the endless struggle between good and evil.”
“We explore in odd places but we do not accept shadow as truth. Yes, there are things of this world, finds which cannot be explained using the measure we accept –”
“Such as speculative archaeology –” Ashley broke in.
“Just so. Unfortunately when we shoe interest in such subjects we are, by many of our kind, supposed to be believers. From believers we are promoted to practitioners – dabblers in evil – in the eyes of others.”
Again she paused. Now she had picked up the package which had been wrapped in the bandana and was turning it around. The kitten had gone to sleep in Ashley’s lap.
“There are book burnings, accusations – Sometimes positions lost – black listings – before time there were actual deaths – horrors which are only used human against human.”
“I cannot claim that I have been set up as a martyr ready for the stake. But for the past two months, ever since I lectured at Bresley on the place of witchcraft four hundred years ago, I have been very aware that there is an interest, I can do without, being taken in my affairs.”
She had freed from its wrappings what she had taken from the bandana. They were both looking down at the figure of the white dragon.
“The problem now is that there are two forces against me. Those who would burn books – Such as I have faced before. Then – now – there is this.” She held up her hand and the dragon seemed to glow as if indeed, according to legend, was filled yy a blazing fire.
The kitten came to frantic life, Ashley barely had time to catch it as its struggling within the muffling bandana set it close to skidding off her knees.
Once again the throat piercing cry sounded. They had not heard any opening or closing of the house door. At the foot of the three steps leading up to the swaybacked porch where that door was to be seen, she stood.
Why had she thought the stranger to be small – or old, wondered the girl for a moment. She stood very straight, her left hand sliding from her shoulder to her breast, smoothing the white thing clinging to the folds of that bundle some cape. The tight knitted cap had shifted somewhat releasing straying flocks of dull grey hair, allowing a chance to see her face fully.
The skin, deep creased by the wrinkles which framed the eyes and bracketed what appeared to be a lipless mouth, open to display a straggle of teeth, was also grey or grimed. While the eyes sunken back into skull hollows were – red! Red as if sparks were set there.
Ashley and Aunt Kat were both on their feet facing what had hailed them moments later with that screech.
Aunt Kat took another step forward. When she spoke her voice held a forceful note Ashley had never heard before.
“What would you do?” Even those words, though she could indeed understand them, sounded almost as if they came from some other language. This was an Aunt Kat she did not know.
The tread-like lips smacked together and then parted. Upswept the woman’s left arm, down that support flashed the white creature. Very alike to the figure Aunt Kat had, it was – a white dragon – smoke curls rising from its snout.
“What is ours.” The woman replied. “What was given by promise but never received...” The Dragon raised its head a fraction and spat – Flame? That sprat could not be anything but flame.
Aunt Kat did not answer at once. Again those lips wrinkled.
“As so above.” The other moved her right arm as if she were fighting stiffness. Now she held not only the dragon steady in their sight but also a staff, the gnarled sides of which carried patterns of lines. Ashley looked away quickly – lines which ran and looped –
“Martine Mantha Monck”
The three portions of that name seemed to echo back through the air above them.
“You name me rightly. You play with words, use snips and shreds –”
“As above – so below –” Aunt Kat interrupted.
Perhaps it was meant for laughter that sound. The woman’s shoulders shook a little. On her left hand the dragon looped a foreleg about her fingers as its footing swayed. In her right fist the staff bowed.
“So be it!” that had the authority of an oath. “If you dare – only you have not the heart for true power, scribbler! You write of it as one dabbling toes in a flood, but going no further.”
She backed away a little. Aunt Kat looked to Ashley, “This must be done. But none of it yours. Stay –”
She still held the pearl shell dragon in the other hand she had her key chain – Keys – and , Ashley remembered, that odd stone brought back from Ireland – green marble fashioned into a cross inset with silver lines, mainly circles – ancient Celtic, Aunt Kat had explained.
Aunt Kat surely must have help in whatever she planned to do but the girl did not what that was to be. The kitten had leaned down and was sniffing at her belt bag sticking out in a bulky fashion. On sudden impulse Ashley loosed the catch and brought out the well wrapped candle. A black paw darted and the tissue tore, again and more ragged strips fell. A quick upward glance let Ashley know that they were both watching her. The paw seemed almost to be flashing like small lightning tearing away the remnants of the wrapping.
Pinched between forefinger and thumb Ashley held the candle in full sight. She had been right – it was a copy of the figure Aunt Kat held – also of the restless beast on the woman’s hand and wrist. Candles should be lighted – Her Aunt suddenly twisted the keys and ring and from somewhere a stronger beam of sun ws triggered to strike upon the wick. At he same time first, loose fire blistered across Ashley’s hand. She cried out and tried to open her hand, drop the candle, but for the second time a flame licked. The candle was indeed swept away but it did not fall to the ground.
Instead it blazed into a wild lump of flame clinging to the staff the woman had aimed at her. Ashley threw herself back, landing with a jarring bump on the ground. The flames caught at the folds of the cape, climbed, ate as if the thick cloth had been soaked in oil. So bright were they that she closed smarting eyes.
As if closing off sight was an encouragement to hearing, swinging words which had no meaning for her grew louder, deadening any other sound. She felt now as if she were the shuddering center of a heaving mass from which there could be no escape. Time no longer had any meaning, her body moved back and forth in time with the sound.
Ashley became aware that a support behind her stopped that swing of body and she opened her eyes. Some distance away was upraised a black pillar wreathed around by ash-grey smoke. Part of a charred rod lay on the ground before it. Aunt Kat knelt there singing still but her voice was strained. She trilled a last word, hummed a last note and got to her feet.
“To your own place go,”
The pillar was gone with blink of an eye. The charred staff with it. Aunt Kat turned to the stone water trough. On its edge she carefully placed the pearl dragon. As she stood watching there was movement in the tangle of grass were the pillar had been, an upheaval of charred earth. Flight through the air – the coming of another fist sized dragon to perch next to the white one. This was black, the glossy black of Hematite. Into the position as its fellow the black one stiffened.
Ashley had staggered closer. “What – what happened?” she demanded not waiting for an answer, her heart still pounding.
“There is much in the world we cannot understand. We cannot even explain.”
“Speculative – all speculative?” Ashley made a question of that.
Aunt Kay nodded. She put her hand together as if she had something balanced within the cup they formed. “I have this scrap and that, but always have I worked with care. Never have I ever used in any. I have read strange accounts and closed all but the outer mind to them, writing the true description of ritual. Nor shall I –, one may carry keys and never use them. One must be above temptation,”
She suddenly took up the white dragon and holding it by its base, smashed it down upon the stone side of the trough. The black dragon followed and she thrust her hand into the water, hunting out all chips of both figures. A visit to the jeep provided her with a scarf – one of the beauties from Paris. She rolled and tied, and with a tire lever dug a hole to bury all and tamped flat the filled in earth.
Now she stood before Ashley. Bur before she could speak the girl shifted the once more sleeping kitten to its other side and was hugging her aunt.
“Everyone has dreams, dear Kat. One does not have to share them, Dragon dreams least of all. This is – was –a dream.”
Her aunt gave her a searching look and then slowly nodded.
“Yes – if you will have it so – a dream.” She said slowly. “One from which we have awakened in good time – you and I.”
Back to the ~ Book of Shadows ~ Index
Digitized and edited by Jay Watts ~ aka: Lotsawatts ~ May, 2015
Never before seen short story by Andre Norton
Released here for the first time
Copyright ~ Estate of Andre Norton
Online Rights - Andre-Norton-Books.com
Donated by – Estate of Andre Norton
Duplication of this story for profit of any kind NOT permitted.