Zysal was in trouble again! Sorcha heaved a troubled sigh as she watched the old Kevii disappear up the path that led to the log cabin that was their home. Merezin had called to complain that her son had been swimming yet again at Springall Falls, a place that was held sacred by all at the Kevii Hall. Tradition handed down and taught at the Hall linked it to ancient Dragon Lore, but dragons had been relegated to myth and legend for so long now, that the true reasoning behind the reverence seemed no longer even clear to the Elders.
She was glad that the boy’s sire and not yet arrived home; he would be angry to hear that Merezin had found the need to complain again. Maybe, if she could get Zysal to promise to stop, and if Zimadon did not run into Merezin when he arrived back from his travels, just maybe all would be well. Sorcha could not understand her son’s love of swimming at all, she knew of no one else who wanted to go in the water where the Falls tumbled into the lake from a great height.
Zysal looked at Astrel and cheerfully grinned at his friend. It was so good to have one person who did not seem to notice that he was different, but just took him as he was. With his straw blonde hair that was almost white and bright blue eyes, there was nobody around who looked like him at all; most people had darker hair and brown eyes, so he was sure this was why all the older people in the village found fault with him. “Don’t do this! Don’t do that!” That was all he ever seemed to hear. Even in his mother’s eyes, as much as he loved her, he always seemed to find something to do that was wrong.
The other boys who lived in the village were either, quite a bit older than he was, or they were not much more than babies, still hanging around close to their mothers. Some of the older boys would ridicule him, especially about the colour of his hair. He liked it, when it got dirty, because its colour was not so noticeable. That was the downside of swimming – it made his hair so blonde that the pale colour stood out even more than usual.
Astrel’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “You had better not let anyone catch you with that wet hair, especially old Merezin. Anyone can tell you have been swimming, and he is bound to know where you have been. He always does.”
“Yes,” replied Zysal, “He always thinks he knows what I have done, even when I haven’t.” He shrugged his shoulders as he continued, “Was he ever our age? Did he never have fun?”
Astrel laughed, having heard it all before from his friend. It was true, the old Kevii did seem always to pick on Zysal more than the other boys in the village, but Zysal so loved to swim, even though the lake at Springall Falls was supposed to be sacred. Neither boy could really understand why; even though Zysal totally believed in the ancient draconic guardians, he had never managed to get an Elder to give him an explanation that satisfied his questions. Astrel had heard his friend enthuse over dragons so many times, but did not really believe in them – although he kept his disbelief to himself, as he did not like confrontation.
“Come on Zy, I’ll race you down the meadow.”
The boys sprinted through the long waving grass, across the gentle slope of the meadow, reaching the trees at the bottom, panting and gasping for breath. Although the sun had been past its high point for a while, it was still very hot and getting more humid by the minute. It felt as if a storm might be brewing - very soon - maybe too soon!
They needed to get through the trees before the storm broke because a tree hit by lightning as they passed could be serious. Zysal and Astrel were going to be in big trouble as it was, for not being home when they should be – still, it would not be the first time they were late or, no doubt, the last. As one, they looked back to the direction that they had just come from. The sky was definitely darkening and the imminent storm was racing towards them from the direction of the mountain peaks. They could tell that this was going to be a really bad one; they did not need to have much in the way of weather sense to understand the threat from what was heading their way. The only question was whether they could get to some sort of shelter before the storm front reached them. They were certain that they did not have time to get all the way home or reach the safety of the village.
“We have to find shelter quickly”, Astrel shouted. “We are not going to make it home.”
Zysal knew that Astrel did not like being outside during a storm, especially one that was likely to be so violent, but he would never tease him about it. Even though he was a couple of years younger, Astrel was the only true friend that he had. Thinking hard, he racked his brains, trying to think of somewhere where they could find shelter, out of the storm until it passed over.
Zysal thought hard, an idea was starting to form; at first, he was not too sure, but they did have to do something to get out of danger. There was that old cave in the cliff, where the river ran close to the wood, which he had never found time to explore - it would at least keep them dry.
“The cave in the cliff, we can get there if we hurry and it will keep us dry if nothing else”.
Astrel’s scared face brightened - anything was better than being out in the storm.
“I don’t know if we are allowed to go there,” he replied, still feeling rather worried. “But we would be dry and we don’t have to go far in - just enough to be dry and out of harm from the storm.
Rather than going through the trees, the boys changed direction, going round the outside of the wood instead. They broke into a run, side-by-side, stride for stride. Astrel was still feeling scared, but he did not want to let his friend down. Swimming had seemed such a good idea when Zysal had suggested it earlier in the day, but now he was not so sure he felt the same way about it. He glanced at the older boy at his side, wishing that he could be brave too
As they ran, they heard a rumble of thunder. This gave them the impetus to find more energy, allowing them to run even faster. As they crashed through the long grass, the first drops of rain started to fall. It was not far now, Zysal knew they would be able to see the cliff as soon as they passed the trees that jutted out in front of them. The sky was growing darker with each stride and another crash of thunder followed, this time much louder, sounding nearer. He knew they did not even have the time to turn round to look at the lightening to see how close it was.
“Quickly now Az! We’re almost there, but we’ve still got to climb up through the rocks,” gasped Zysal. The boys now darted across the last piece of open grass before climbing up through the rocks. Luckily, the rain was not falling hard, so they were not slippery yet, but that would soon change if they did not hurry.
Astrel felt a wave of pure panic rise from his stomach as he could not see a cave in sight and the weather was getting worse. He did not want to tell his friend that he was terrified of storms.
“Where’s this cave, Zy? You sure you know where it is? I can’t see anything that even looks like a hole much less a cave.”
“Yes,” Zysal shouted back down to where Astrel was climbing behind him. “See that large funny shaped rock over there, well we’ve got to go round behind that before we see it.”
Suddenly there was a large flash of lightning to one side of them, immediately followed by a loud thunderclap. The boys scrambled round the rock Zysal had pointed out to Astrel and, sure enough, there was the cave a little further along. Large drops of rain were starting to fall now, as they made a final dash for the mouth of the cave. It was rough going, but both boys were determined not to get a thorough soaking; they did not mind being wet through swimming, but to be drenched in a thunderstorm was entirely a different matter!
Zysal turned and pulled Astrel up on to the ledge that formed the entrance to the cave - they were safer now or, at least for the time being. They were just in the nick of time, too, as rain began to pour down in a wild torrent, sounding more like a waterfall. The sky, now black, was lit up repeatedly by the stark, jagged flashes of white forked lightning. The boys were both thankful that they were no longer out in the open. Zysal hoped that his mother would not be too worried about him, although he knew he would be in trouble when he did get home. Deep down he knew it was because she cared but he did not want to admit that, so he pushed it to the back of his mind.
Astrel did not know which was worse, the ragged lightning that briefly lit the sky or the deafening noise that followed from the claps of thunder. He was thankful that he was with his brave friend and not on his own. He did not like the cave much either but decided that it was an improvement on being outside.
“Come on let’s see how big this cave really is,” Zysal was restless and bored crouching there, watching the weather and waiting. “We have got to do something while were stuck in here.”
Astrel was unsure, as neither option was his idea of fun, but still, he scrambled to his feet to follow where Zysal led; he did not wish to be left on his own.
“Close your eyes for a few moments and then you will be able to see better when you open them,” Zysal advised as they turned their backs on the entrance. Astrel did as he was told; sure enough, he found that he could see more clearly than before.
The roof was more than high enough for them to stand at the entrance but now that they could see more, they realised that the roof rose higher as it ran further back. The cave was narrow near the front, not much wider than the entrance, but as the boys inched back away from the entrance, their eyes growing more accustomed to the dark, they realised that there was a lot more to this cave than they had previously thought.
“Look Zy, the walls are shinier here. They almost twinkle at us.”
Astrel was feeling a little less scared now. After all, the walls did have a magical quality to them and if he looked hard enough, he was sure he could see different colours constantly changing. At this point, they had reached a very large rock jutting out from the side of the cave narrowing it down considerably. They both gingerly edged their way around it holding on to it with one hand.
Its solidity gave them courage to continue, but they were not ready for the sight that met them as they rounded it.
Off to one side, hidden by the mammoth rock, the cave opened up into a large cavern that was not visible from the front of the first cave. It was beautiful - there were many stalagmites and stalactites, some of which had grown together over thousands of years to form tall columns. Despite there being no daylight, Astrel and Zysal could see clearly enough, because the walls shimmered and almost seemed to give off a light of their own.
Zysal gave a big sigh as he whispered with reverence, “This place feels… I dunno… special. Can you feel it?”
“Yes!” Astrel murmured. He had now forgotten all his fears. “It’s like magic, there is no light but we can still see. Look at all those colours; they seem to be changing all the time. If you look hard enough, you can almost see things in them”.
“The floor is different here now too,” Zysal had noticed that it was no longer gritty and rough with stones lying here and there. Here, in this larger cave, it was now smooth and pale in colour, which no doubt added to the feeling of enchantment. Although it was smooth, it was not slippery and was not even at all like the ornate floors in the building where the village elders were found, led by the Kevii, old Merezin.
Both were left without any doubt, that this was a special place. Neither one of them really knew why they felt this, there was just something indefinable about the place; it was almost as if it was calling out to them. That did not make any sense to either of them at all; but that was just how they felt. In this place of enchanted beauty, both boys had lost track of time. Suddenly, for Astrel, the spell broke; he now had a nagging feeling that they should not be there at all, and that they had tarried there far too long. However, Zysal did not want to leave and it was only with great difficulty did Astrel persuade him to come out of the cavern to return to the ledge.
When they got back to the entrance, the storm had passed over and the sun was shining again, although it had moved further round towards the west, so it was much later in the day. The feeling of magic had gone from Astrel, now replaced with an ever-growing certainty that they were really going to get into trouble for being so late. However, Zysal could still feel something from the cavern; it was still calling to him, although not so strongly now he was in the open air. He shrugged his shoulders, deciding that he would not worry about it now - perhaps it would come to him later.
As they both headed towards home, Astrel wanted to run but Zysal still felt loathe to leave. His feet were leaden as he trudged away from the river. “Still,” he thought to himself, “I can come back again, now that I know.” This made him feel better - the more he promised himself that he would come back, the lighter his feet felt and the easier it was to leave. It was almost as if the cavern could hear his promise and was allowing him to leave but that was a daft thought. He was confused; not sure any more what to think.
Astrel had been right. Both boys were in deep trouble for being out for so long, especially with such a violent thunderstorm raging around. His mother did not seem to appreciate the fact that both boys had been sensible enough to shelter while it was overhead. In her opinion, any storm was unsafe to be out in, and the cave was dangerous too. She had not been there – so how would she know? He knew his mother did not like him spending so much time with his friend. He just could not win, no matter what he said, and he wondered if Zy was getting more of the same treatment.
Perhaps if the old Kevii had not complained so harshly earlier in the day then Zysal would not have had to take so much of the blame. However, Merezin had always managed to make Sorcha feel as if, by association, she were the one that had done something wrong even if deep down she knew it was not so. Many people in the village knew that the two boys had been missing during the storm and she now had resigned herself to the fact that she would have to speak to Zysal’s sire about both misdeeds - swimming at Springall Falls and being out in the storm.
She looked across to her daughters, Sorchi and Axia; both her girls were always well behaved, as they should be, even if Axia’s manner was sometimes a little irrepressible. She was doing well with her lessons at the Kevii Hall and Sorchi was of an age soon to be considered mature enough to be betrothed. There would be no shortage of families with young men to make offers. Her stitch work was so good that her sire had already traded some pieces at Glen Carlia; there were many important, wealthy people there, and they gave much in return for quality goods. Even Zysal had begged her repeatedly until she had given in, for a small stitched picture of one of the oldest legends around – a dragon. Of course, nobody knew what dragons really looked like, but the old stories lived on through families, handed down from one generation to the next through the passage of time.
Sorcha brought her wandering mind back to the matter in hand. She had set her wayward son to stacking the firewood neatly at the back of the cabin. It needed to be kept dry under shelter. Their small village, Brindlemount, was nestled at the foot of the Pewter Mountains. They were a majestic sight with their snowcaps but Sorcha knew that they could make the weather change rapidly – just like today’s storm – and it would never do to run out of dry wood. Besides, it was a useful job to give her son when she needed to keep him out of trouble.
The Charnel Forest gave an endless supply of wood as long as it was gathered as tradition demanded. Any dead wood lying on the ground could be taken, but it would choke them with thick smoke if it were not stacked well to dry out. The forest ranger would work his way around once a year, providing extra wood for the village but no live wood was ever cut down by anyone else. He had been the Guardian of the forest as far back as village folk could remember.
In the distance, she could hear the steady beat of hooves on the stony track leading into the village. She listened carefully, finding that they were coming nearer, which meant that Zysal’s sire would be home shortly. It had to be him, no one else was due who rode a horse; she would just about have time to throw some grain to the clucks and collect their eggs. It would take Zimadon more than a few moments to see to his horse after such a long tiring journey - both man and horse would sleep well tonight.
Zysal heard the horse approaching as well; he really felt nervous as to what his sire might say or do, but his mind was intent on thinking about the cave. For some reason he could not let it go, even though he did not understand why. It was not the same as when he was actually in the cave - that was enthralling, magical and very special. He somehow knew that Astrel had not had quite the same experience. It had just been an ordinary cave to him, somewhere to keep him dry and give the pair of them shelter from the storm. He also knew that Astrel had been scared both of the storm and of being in the cave, although he had tried not to show it. Zysal decided that whatever happened next, the experience in the cave was definitely worth it.
He had almost finished stacking the woodpile when he heard voices from inside the cabin. He could not hear the actual words spoken but he could just imagine Sorcha telling Zimadon each and every single thing that had happened whilst he was away on his journey. Zimadon had only been gone for seven days; his mother would make it sound like a lifetime! No doubt, the fact that Merezin had complained about swimming in the lake at the Falls again would come up – he had been greeted with that when he had arrived home. Not that his mother had told him - it was Sorchi, who had announced, with glee, that he was in trouble yet again. Big sisters – what a pain they could be! They never understood him.
As he placed the last piece of wood neatly on the stack, he heard the kitchen door creak. He turned to see his sire standing in the doorway, watching him silently with his face full of anger. Zysal gulped; he knew that this time he was in deeper trouble as his sire strode over, but despite his expression, his voice was low and steady.
“Swimming again – and staying out in a storm – don’t you know how worried your mother was? You scared her half to death. This has got to stop.”
“No buts, Zysal – no excuses. You are in the wrong. From now on, you stay at home with your mother. You are not to leave her sight. You are not to have any contact with Astrel. You are twelve years, nearly thirteen – it is time to grow up, take responsibility.”
“I don’t want to know. Why do you keep doing things that you know are wrong? You have been told, time after time, that you do not swim at Springall Falls – no matter how clear the water is. Those falls are sacred, and you are being disrespectful to all our ancestors when you enter the water. Even old Merezin seems beyond your respect. We have brought you up to know better – I just can’t understand it.”
“Sorry dad. Don’t you remember what it was like being my age?”
“Yes, I remember, we didn’t have the freedom you have enjoyed, and we showed far more respect for our elders.”
And so the tirade went on, Zysal did feel guilty – after the event – but he just could not help himself. Swimming was the best thing ever; it was not his fault that no one else had the inclination, other than Astrel. However, he did realise that it was more a matter of his friend wanting to be with Zysal rather than a love of the water. As for the storm, it was unfair to blame him for that. He could not control nature and he had done his best to shelter from it rather than risk being hit by lightning.
“You had better get in, as it’s time to eat, then bed for you and we’ll talk more about this in the morning – early!” Finally, Zimadon seemed to run out of steam. He turned towards the stable to see to his horse as any good horseman would; it was second nature to make sure that your horse was seen to before yourself. Not many men had horses. They were highly prized if you were fortunate or important enough to have one. His horse had carried him many leagues over the last few days. Perhaps that was why he was so angry with Zysal, because he was tired. He entered the stable, grabbed a brush and started brushing the old mare down. This had a calming effect on him so he would not be so wound up when he ate his meal. By the time he had finished, her black coat shone like ebony and her white forked blaze down her face, along with her four long white socks were as white as they could be.
Zysal watched his sire disappear into the stable before he felt safe enough to head indoors. No doubt, Sorcha would start on him, closely followed by his sisters. They never seemed to need much of an excuse, although Axia was young enough that sometimes she would take his part. He wondered what Astrel was getting in the way of a telling off; he guessed that he, Zysal, would carry most of the blame – life could be so unfair.
To his surprise, his mother said very little to him. Both his sisters were helping her with the evening meal. The two of them were silent, as they totally ignored him. So, this was it – the silent treatment – well he could cope with it from them, but he wasn’t quite sure about his mother. He was still just young enough that it hurt his feelings that she only said that which was necessary and not a word more.
The meal was very subdued affair as very little was spoken; normally when his sire was home from a trip there was plenty to talk about, however tonight, there was definitely a sombre atmosphere. Zysal could not wait to finish his meal and disappear to bed, feeling miserable, as he did not enjoy being in this much trouble. His sire had already said that there was more to come in the morning but he still could not see that his sire’s point of view was completely justified.
He did not feel tired, despite everything he had done during the day. His mind took him back to the mad dash to outrun the storm, leading his thoughts towards the cave.As he lay there in the dark, he could still feel the cave calling to him.What was it? He had certainly not felt it before today.It was not as strong as the feeling when he was actually standing there, in the cave, but it was still there now, nagging at him continually, like a bad toothache.Except in this instance, as far as the cave was concerned, he had formed a distinct impression that no harm would come to him by responding to that call.