Monday, April 05, 2010

The Great Ivy Highway (part 1)

Old Biddy Mable sat as quiet as a field mouse while Juliette, Storm Wizard, Ben, Brian, Daniel, and Morgana conversed in hushed tones at a round wooden table, highly polished and embroidered with opal inlay forming interwoven dragon and serpent patterns. In Weeleen’s fabulous Tea House there is much that escapes casual notice, for there is simply so much to see there. Surrounded by fragrant aromas, teas, and honey candles, and sweet scents of cinnamon and nutmeg, amid the soft flickering lights from the lanterns and candelabras, the ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ were considering their options.

On the far side of the tea room Lady Isabella could be seen departing through the same wide archway she entered from, ascending a broad marble and silver stairway. Her golden orange dress with the multi-sized poke dots sashayed and swished on her way as her blue and black warrior walked calmly behind her, his rapier’s silver hilt glinting in the candle light as they vanished up the stairway.

There was much on their minds as they contemplated the impending Revenge of Thurwulf. Having killed, if accidentally, one of Thurwulf’s minions, Mr. Montague, over whom Morgana wept quietly to herself, they were certain that the attack would be swift and merciless. And so Old Biddy Mable, having drawn their attention to the idea of an escape route, sat waiting, and casting glances around the broad and crowded room. There were many tables in this section of the tea house, and glass partitions and low stone walls formed sophisticated, yet effective, barriers between areas of the floor. Through one archway one could see the extension of the tea room as it apparently looped around in an arc toward what Morgana considered “East”, and was already drawing maps in her head.

“Now this will be worth something to the Adenture’s Guild!” she thought with a fleeting smile.

Juliette sat with Ember, the tiny black kitten, purring on her lap. He was looking up at her with his enormous orange eyes purring contentedly, for all the world in a state of perfect happiness, as kittens are wont to do. Around the room could be heard the buzz and hubbub of many conversations, all hushed and muffled, they thought by the acoustics of the room, so that no table could actually easily overhear what the patrons at any other were saying. All the while the pretty young hostess with the golden locks and flowers in her hair wearing a gossamer blue dress, carried an ornate silver tray with teas and crystal flasks hither, thither and yon. Here and there she would clear off a table, give a check, or receive payment, and with her dazzling tiny smiles she charmed everyone in the room. In fact, to tell how some there thought of it, every person there was there to see her alone, and any other reason was simply some contrivance in their minds. And so the guests were sitting there enjoying themselves. And if there happened to be any who weren't, it was quite obvious to the others, that these were strangers to be tolerated, but nothing more.

There came a hush upon the room, as an unseen flutist played a soft sorrowful melody from the spiral stairway overlooking the Tea Room. A cool breeze softened the air, as the music touched the listeners, though many of them knew it not. The few talkers during the flute recitals was evidence, to the friends, of strangers in the room, and one or two scowls were cast in their direction. The music was so soft you would not notice it unless you were listening for it. And yet for those who were, it was the loveliest sound they'd ever heard, or would ever likely hear again, so enchanting were those delicate melodies. And then the music faded away, and the hubbub and bustle picked up once more.

The 'Steel Wool Sheeps' were drawn out of their reverie as Old Biddy Mable had just finished saying, “Well dears, I don’t suppose it’s time for you to leave, but it most certainly is, I should think. Whither whichever way you go, you ought to consider going soon.”

Juliette, rubbing Ember behind the ears, suggested that as much as she would have liked to explore the Tea House much more, with it’s wonderful archways and mysterious colored doors, both open and closed, leading into mysterious passageways. Ah but they felt, and wisely so, that it was probably better to leave soon, than to face Thurwulf in their current state. Each of them was wounded or exhausted from the last battle on the tower’s parapet. Brian, though recovered by the healing of the Mighty Elkron Minvar, was still dazed and could barely walk without Daniel’s help. Storm Wizard agreed, as did the others, that escape sounded like a good idea.

But before they got up to leave Juliette began to notice that somewhere within her mind there seemed to be a presence and that somebody was very stealthily peering at her thoughts as they were sailing by. It was a strangely elusive feeling that a pair of eyes were following after her thoughts, furtively stealing between the shadows, and hiding behind things in the corners of her mind somewhere. Off in the shadows, hiding, and watching her thoughts sailing past.

Juliette began to deliberately think about nothing but muffins and tea, and tried to recite in her mind half remembered school book texts. She made a valiant attempt to keep her mind busy with random recollections. The eyes moved and shifted, slinking quietly, and then scampering off in another direction and vanishing for a moment, only to reappear elsewhere. It felt like they were trying to discover something. A pair of eyes searching for something of great curiosity.

Juliette turning to Storm Wizard spoke in low tone, “We should go right now.” Ember purred.

“Yes maybe we should”, said Storm Wizard, disturbed by the change in tone of her voice.

Old Biddy Mable agreed and so they began to stand up. So nervous was Juliette, and so alarmed by that was Storm Wizard, and the rest, that nobody even thought to pay for their tea. Nor had they even had a chance to relish it much, for their minds were otherwise occupied.

Although she wasn’t presently considering these things consciously, Juliette thought that the Tea House existed in some place “between here and there”, which is where Biddy Mable had described it to be, as though it were a place that existed only partially in time and space, and that if you looked for it without knowing where it was you could never find it. For it really wasn’t actually anywhere in particular, she guessed. It was some magically hidden place, perhaps, that only showed up at certain times, and if you knew the secret of how to get to it then you could find it, but otherwise you never would. She remembered how she and her friends were invited there by Biddy Mable’s incantation, down the into the stone of the arched doorway, and then down the inner earth Stoneway that passed through the Realms of Minvar.

On the edges of dark vales and high passes of the inner-world Earth Kingdom they had journeyed to the Tea House, past a river of molten magma, which Ben called “the veins of the World”, crossing over a tall narrow bridge made of metal that seemed to be forged from the very roots of the mountains. Crossing the bridge Ben noticed pulsing lights that flickered with images of people, places and things, flitting along the metal railings of the bridge, almost like thoughts flashing across one's mind. It was passing strange, and made him wonder just what sort of world it was that they were passing through. They walked along the shore of a slow moving river of glowing orange magma, and then along the edge a tall cold canyon gorge that was as silent as a tomb. Morgana named the gorge “The Jaws of the Shadow King”, as the place gave her a wicked chill, and scribbled notes about it on a map she was making. Through the halls of a pure crystal cavern they walked until they came to a deep blue river roaring into a dark cave edged by white foam. Once they caught a glimpse of a far distant place beyond the roots of the mountains, and much deeper into the Earth. But this the Minvarians saw only as though they peered through a dark and brooding earth-storm, like a swirling haze of black smoke. It seemed as though a great range of mountains were in gigantic collision, grinding into a colossal shelve of dark elemental stone, cracking it into magnificent slabs the size of mountains, as white hot magma ripped through the jagged edges from one end to the other. The entire mass bored downward into other deeper, darker mass against which flashes of lightening blazed blue-white through what seemed the very core of the world. And upon those massive flashes of lightning, Ben imagined for a single incomprehensible moment that he saw a grinning face, fleeting, shimmering, with monstrous ferocity, brutality and power. But those bolts were very far away beyond the roots of the world, and so they walked on and passed by, only dimly comprehending the magnitude of that scene. Ben never mentioned to anyone what he'd seen, except to Morgana sometime later, so bizarre and terrifying it seemed.

And then they turned a corner and that distant scene was no longer in their line of sight as they entered a golden laced corridor that lead along an upward slope into a palatial balcony overlooking a smooth chasm of glowing metal walls, lit by bubbling pools of magma along the dark and distant bottom. And so it went, and it seemed to them to be a very long journey through the inner earth, and yet all the same it seemed much too brief, and like they’d seen it all in but a few steps. And through all this journey only Ben, Morgana, and Juliette saw the Stoneway clearly, but to the others who were not disciples of Minvar, they saw little but darkness, and wandered helplessly through freezing tunnels that seemed to lead into greater darkness. They all felt the sensation of passing through the earth as though through deep and heavy water, but each person’s vision was influenced by the depth of their understanding.

Finally they entered into a bright and happy glow, with a sudden opening of a door in the side of a cavern wall. They had entered the gorgeous and elegant Tea House of Weeleena, the Flower Bride, a Princess among the Fey. Sitting at a wide round table in the most elegant setting you could imagine, they saw old Biddy Mable. All of this Juliette was remembering in detail as they walked up the stairs. But most intensely she felt that the Tea House, despite being neither here nor there, was very real. In fact, it felt in some strange way as though it might have been the most “real” place she had ever been. A place that by being between here and there, meant it was anywhere, and everywhere, always and forever. Somehow that thought gave her comfort.

And then Juliette began to consider the Ladybug, Isabella. She recalled that Biddy Mable was vague about who she was, but said she had “irons in many fires”. She lingered on the implications of what that might mean, but overall Juliette reflected on the fact that she did not get a good feeling about that woman with the strange black headdress, and bright orange and black dotted gown. She didn’t like how the Lady singled out Storm Wizard and had taken him to her own table to interact privately with him. She wondered what they spoke of. She might have even felt a bit of jealousy in so far as the Lady had chosen Storm Wizard over her to speak to. It was almost as if she had known him in some way. And Juliette felt that the Lady was very powerful, and had been so for quite some time, and someone you need to be careful with. One would not want to get on her bad side, she thought.

And the eyes peered more deeply… why, they wanted to know, was she called “Ladybug”? Was she secretly a ladybug, somehow? And to this Juliette really did not know the answer. Around and around this question they peered, from this side and that side, from above and below. They padded around the question, trying to get at “what was the Ladybug?”. Maybe she was like a lady on the outside, but a bug on in the inside, Juliette wondered? Or perhaps there was a concrete reason, or maybe her name was a kind of metaphor, or perhaps it was simply the way she liked to dress. And her man, whom her thoughts lit upon briefly, seemed almost a wholly other kind of being than Isabella. Stern, uncompromising, solemn, strong, accurate and dangerous. And so very handsome. But her thoughts wandered from him, and returned to Isabella. Who was that woman?

The eyes seemed to shift around, prying for answers. And Juliette tried hard not to think about the answers. But the eyes stealthily maneuvered to the doors in her mind, and gently opening them, looked inside, and then quietly closed them again. Juliette realized suddenly with some alarm and some pride that it was only her advanced skill that allowed her to even notice that the eyes were there at all, for she knew she would never have been keen enough to detect them whatsoever at an earlier time in her life.

Biddy Mable, having stood up, pointed to a small archway in which there squatted a short round blue door with a brass handle, closed, not far from where they were sitting. And the blue door was where Biddy Mable was taking them.

As the ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ stood up from their table the friends began to move toward the blue door, and the most jittery of the lot was Juliette, by far. But no one seemed to notice that, nor even their departure, except perhaps the patrons at one or two of the closest tables. At a nearby table sat two workmen wearing burlap robes, and elaborately adorned Blue-Black Warriors sat at another table talking among themselves and took no notice of the friends as they made their way in a line after Biddy Mable. Storm Wizard, however, began to take notice that he did not recognize the language of any of those people at the tables around them. At any of the tables. The workmen were speaking with strange sounding whirling clicks.

“Click-click - - Whirl-whirl-click. Whirl-click. Whirl-click.”, one was saying, as the other seemed to laugh as he thumped the table softly with his hand, the other grinning widely.

At another table there were two Aristocrat-Warriors speaking with odd low toned buzzing noises that gave the impression of secrecy, while fingering the silver hilts of their swords.

“zzzz”, “zzzzzz”, “zzzzzz-buzzz-zzzzzzz”, said one, as they turned their heads to meet Storm Wizard’s gaze.

Meanwhile Juliette walked behind Biddy Mable, looking at the walls as though she found something of great interest in them. In fact, had she looked more closely, she would have indeed, for the walls were made of very unusual stones, gems and metals fused and polished to form very strange designs and patterns. Had one the skill in ancient languages they might have discerned the Earth Script written in the elder tongue of the earth lords, songs of the earth. But her mind was occupied deliberately by muffins and tea and the recounting of school book texts, and so she was not paying attention to her surroundings as was Morgana, who followed behind her looking at the walls in silent awe. Ben came next, and he too was astounded by the nature of the stonework that formed the palatial chamber of the Tea House, but had no inkling of the script there in, as he was only a second circle disciple and had yet to learn of such things. Brian, limping, was helped along by Daniel, neither of whom knew of such things as the nature of stones, but merely passed by with their eyes affixed to the Blue-Black Warriors, and their only consideration was making it to the blue door without getting into another brawl.

Thinking that it might look conspicuous to have all six of them walking directly toward the blue door, Storm Wizard made his way along an alternate path. And so as the party walked in a line toward the blue door, and he took a route past the table of Aristocrat-Warriors toward an open archway along the north wall, not far from the entranceway into which Isabella had vanished. The sharp featured Warriors were wearing midnight-blue vests, had slick jet black hair that glinted, and carried silver hilted rapiers. Both were silent and stared at him with sideways gazes as he walked past their table toward the nearby archway, smaller than the others and not very far away from the blue door. He pointedly avoided looking in their direction, and made his way to the archway. The archway revealed a long flight of stairs going downward and curving off to the right. Upon the walls of the spiraling tunnel’s purple and yellow mosaic there were set brass lanterns at intervals of twelve feet, and the stairs were made of polished white marble that vanished around the curve downward toward further mysteries than Storm Wizard intended to explore that day.

Having satisfied his curiosity, he made his way back toward the blue door, and as he walked passed their table the Aristocrat-Warriors stood up and stared at him with fixed expressions, and a menacing glower in their eyes. Making his way to the blue door Storm Wizard put his hand to the brass doorknob as Biddy Mable seemed to be fiddling around with her bag paying far too little attention to the happenings in his opinion. It was very ornate, cool to the grasp, and it would not budge in the least for him. Biddy Mable, nervous at the standing up of the Warriors, fumbled with a leather bag, producing in her trembling hand a small oddly shaped brass key.

“Hold on, hold on, I have a key.”, she said, and proceeded to put it in the lock.

Storm Wizard, ignoring her, continued passed and made is way to another doorway beyond the table where the two farmers were sitting making their clicking-whirling conversation. They were entertaining themselves over cups of steaming tea and bowls of green broth. They seemed to take no notice of Storm Wizard as he made his way toward the black door with the oval bronze knob. The Warriors at the first table did. And they made a rapid bee-line toward the black door. These two men moved very quickly, and yet without appearing to force haste in anyway. Seeing this, Storm Wizard calculated that the Warriors would soon be flanked with himself on one side, and his friends on the other, but this calculation was quite wrong, and he reconsidered the idea hastily revising his plan upon second thought.

“What in the name of Minvar’s belly button does he think he’s doing!?”, cursed Juliette to herself.

The Warriors came at such a speed toward the black door as to make any possibility of Storm Wizard’s arriving there first quite improbable. And so he stopped walking in that direction, and instead turned around without further ado made his way back toward Biddy Mable who had by that time opened the blue door, and was ushering the young people up a narrow flight of stairs that vanished around the spiral curve in the wall.

What was most interesting about the stairs, they noticed right away, was that they seemed to get smaller and smaller the further up they went.

“Aw it’s just perspective”, thought Storm Wizard.

“There’s something magical about those stairs”, thought Juliette. And she had the feeling that if she went up the stairs she would get smaller and smaller too. And as she thought that Ember stopped purring for a moment to give a little “meow”.

When Storm Wizard saw that Biddy Mable had opened the blue door and that the others were being ushered up the stairs, he turned and went to them. As soon as he did so the two Warriors stopped, and cocked eyebrows watching him as he vanished up the stairs, buzzing one to another. The blue door closed with a thud, and that was the last the two Warriors saw of the ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’.

However, the farmers who had been sitting at the other table had also stood up and made their way to the blue door, and before it closed they also ducked inside. When they did, Biddy Mable greeted them, saying, “Oh Thank you for coming on such short notice, my friends.” And everyone followed Biddy Mable up the stairs.

As they ascended, the stairs grew smaller and smaller, and yet appeared to get larger and larger at the same time, which seemed very strange. At the top of the stairs they came at long last to a small wooden door, and when the opened it they found that they were all standing in the entrance of a tiny door, no bigger than an ant hole. Around them climbed huge stone walls far into the sky, the most gigantic they’d ever seen, formed by the hill-sized stone blocks of the tower's parapet where they'd had their most recent battle. Far above twinkled the stars in the black velvet sky, and the moon passed lazily between two silvered clouds. Gigantic ivy vines crowded with enormous leaves swayed in the wind amid huge branches. Beyond the doorway appeared to them to be an enormous stone plain, dimpled by dirt hills, giant dry leaves, huge fallen twigs like tilted towers, and a mayriad of giant insects of various kinds bustling and buzzing about in every direction, some crawling, some flying. The wind caused the leaves overhead to wave in enormous arcs which created a sea of fantastic shadows which waxed and waned in the moonlight around them. The ground ahead was mossy, or filled with clumps of dirt forming small hillocks through which they could see winding pathways, and one such trail went from the doorway directly into the jungle of fauna before them. Nearby they saw a herd of aphids migrating in a series of lines. It was then that one of the two farmers spoke.

“My name, dear friends, is Tinkin, and this is my brother Kintan. Biddy Mable has asked us to be your guides. We can take you on the backs of the aphids and ride them beyond The Edge and down The Great Ivy Way.”

Everyone gulped.

“But how will we get big again?”, demanded Storm Wizard.

“Well, we’re not so knowledgeable about that, I’m sorry”, said Tinkin.

“Biddy Mable”, asked Juliette, “How will we get big again!?”

“Don’t you worry dear, it will all work out”, said Biddy Mable. “You just stay on the back of the aphids, and don’t let them go astray.” As she gave them this instruction the ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ climbed onto the backs of the aphids. There were ropes and a kind of wicker saddles fashioned onto the aphids, giving them the appearance of a kind of wagon, and two people could fit on each aphid. Sets of twine-like reigns attached to the aphids antenna gave them a certain amount of control over the direction the aphid would take, hopefully.

“If you don’t make us normal sized, then Ember won’t be normal sized, and he might not like that”, Juliette reminded Mable with a certain edge in her voice as she climbed up.

“Don’t worry dear, it will all work out. You’ll see. Now listen carefully to what I tell you. The road down the Great Ivy Way can be a dangerous one. You must be careful and stay on the main branch whatever you do and stick close to the other aphids. You can go on the sides if you must, but you must try to stay on the top if at all possible. When you get to the bottom send word back with Tintak here. Now I will return back downstairs, and cover your tracks as best I can. Good luck!”, said Biddy Mable, and with that the wooden door shut, and she was gone. Ember gave a little meow.

“We better stay on the main road”, she said to her Aphid as the guides, Tinkin and Kintin saddled up the lead aphid wagon and got going. Juliette tried to steer as politely as possible. She found that the aphids made twittery noises when the antenna were tugged, and on the whole they seemed rather difficult to keep on the trail. They certainly had a tendency to wander off toward any kind of food that appeared on the stem along the way, and would stop and munch on mossy green mounds, or head off toward a leafy looking outcropping whenever they passed one. So it took quite a bit of concentration to keep them moving forward in a line.

Previous Episode: Ladybug At Weeleena's
Next Episode: The Great Ivy Highway - Part 2

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