Krish had a few minutes to take in the face looking down at them. It was as if Old Margary was comprised entirely of filthy old starched rags. Her face was a swirl of rough canyons on dry and mottled skin that did not look like it had moved for years. Hidden in her ghostly features were two shallow dark craters which he presumed were her eyes. She looked through him for some time, stiff as a statue, and then slowly turned to Balthrir.
“Bbbbbaaaaallll-” Came the elongated croak from the small crease that was Old Margary's mouth.
“Balthrir!” Interrupted Balthrir “Yep, that's me! Been a long time, old girl. Might need a bit of assistance, if yer've got the time...”
Old Margary considered this for roughly 20 minutes, then took five minutes to lower her head and another five for it rise up again to complete her nod. Then, with unexpected swiftness, she re-entered the house. Balthrir climbed the ladder and Krish followed.
The house was filled with pages. Books torn apart, the pages suspended from strings, positioned all about the ramshackle abode. Cauldrons, test tubes and mixing bowls were strewn about the worktops and a mattress-lined alcove encircled the whole of Old Margary's home. In fact, much seemed to be replicated around the room, perhaps so the ancient witch - who clearly moved at a pace that would see her being lapped by snails if she were in a race – would always have food and somewhere to rest for night, wherever she was in the room.
Old Margary stood by a hanging cauldron, flames flickering around the rim.
“Let me help!” butted in Balthrir.
While Old Margary was caught in a bow of thanks for a few minutes, Balthrir leapt forward and picked up a large black sphere, resembling a cannon ball, filled it with water and placed it at the heart of the roaring fire.
Krish was aware of Old Margary's inquisitive gaze washing over him. The skin of her sack-like face was surely about to crack, Krish thought as the corners of her mouth moved upwards for the first time that he had seen.
Telling someone nervous to relax is about as effective as placing a large, scrumptious-looking cake in front of a hungry child and leaving them alone in a room with it, with the express order not to consider even the tiniest of mouthfuls.
Instead Krish gave all his attention to the process of tea-making. The fire was so intense that steam billowed out of the holes in the top of the cannonball kettle. Balthrir had lowered glass tubes into these holes and all the steam was travelling up them at great speed. The tubes bared off at right angles, all heading out from the central point at which they met and the steam passed through porous sachets filled with tea leaves before the tubes took a dive another 90 degrees to bulbous flasks tied to the end of the tubes. Once full, Balthrir removed the flasks and stoppered them tightly before placing them in a sink filled with cold water. With minutes the steam had condensed into liquid and Balthrir was serving them in teacups with a little cold water.
Krish was overjoyed that Old Margary sprang her question moments after sitting down rather than pondering for hours on end.
Balthrir launched immediately into an explanation (playing down the King's hostile attitude towards her young companion) and Krish enjoyed his smoky-sweet tea that had a warm, comforting aftertaste of baked apple. Then he turned his attention to something he had not noticed in the room before.
On the wall in front of them was a large charcoal-coloured canvas covered in dashes of light grey, some straight, some curved. It was like fog or smoke or a cloud overburdened with rain. They were vague shapes on the canvas somewhere but he couldn't quite make anything out. The painting (if that's what it was – could be some enormous, filthy tea-towel hung out to dry for all he knew) perplexed him a little but as Balthrir concluded her tale he lost all interest in the mess of grey on the wall.
“So, Night Ocean for the pearl and the Pale Hunting Grounds for the feather we're fine with, no probs... Well, lots of probs, potentially, but all possible, yer know? But this tying a bit o'string round the world nonsense is a bit of a puzzler. And I thought if there's anyone who can help, Old Margary's m'girl!”
Old Margary contemplated this for a while – during which time Krish and Balthrir had a leisurely lunch-break of flat mikan bread and spiced quanta – before she journeyed to the triangular gap in the planks of her home which formed a misshapen window. The ancient witch produced a number of shoulder-height interconnected wooden stands, each with a small circular mirror the size of a coin at its pinnacle. She placed a large basket on the floor next to the contraption. After several minutes, sunlight hit the first mirror and bounced onto the next one and then the next and then the next and then the next. The beam of light was mesmerising to watch and after some time it began to change. Its brightness decreased and it appeared to be moving. The thin, dimming sunlight accelerated and became solid. The sunlight poured from the final mirror and filled the basket with a silvery twine.
Soon Old Margary was winding the shining wire into a surprisingly compact ball and holding it out for Krish.
“Unbreakable...?” Offered Balthrir. Old Margary gave her a hasty 30-second nod.
The old sorceress then scanned one of the workbenches for several minutes before producing a long thin grand-looking box of dark wood. Balthrir helped her open the box to save them a half-hour interval. Lying in the blue velvet interior was a rather plain wooden handle, no bigger than a teaspoon, which was less than half the length of the box it sat within. The minutes drew on as Old Margary was busy holding up the handle until the outline of what looked like a short glass knitting needle appeared against the beam of sunlight emanating from the window.
Krish swore he heard a crunch from Old Margary's ancient wrist as with unexpected haste she tore through the streak of sunshine, which fell to the ground and fizzed to nothingness, its bright light extinguished in a haze of smoke on the scorched floorboards.
“Blimey!” exclaimed Balthrir. “A Salvean blade! 'Eard there're only a couple o'these left in existence. We are honoured! Only thing that can cut through sunlight. So the only blade that'll cut through that-” she indicated the twine “-I'll bet! No mortal blade'll get through it and...”
Balthrir delicately took the knife from Old Margary's hand - the lines on the old witch's palm seemed as long and as deep as canyons and were probably just as old - and ran the almost invisible blade over her own palm. It didn't leave a mark.
“There!” proclaimed Balthrir. “Not a scratch!”
Krish nodded his head in awe at the tiny knife. Then he noticed Old Margary staring at him, the ball of twine in her hand. He hesitated and then reached out to take the ball. Old Margary's hand was not giving up the twine of sunlight so easily.
Old Margary was a statue once more. Those eyes, darker than the dead of night, still as ice, bore into him.
“Just tell her the truth,” muttered Balthrir.
“My mother,” said Krish. “I....want to give her more time. As much time as I can.”
Old Margary still wouldn't surrender the twine.
“The truth,” came Balthrir's prompt.
Krish thought. He feared this ancient woman with the face of rancid old cloth, her barely visible cease for a mouth and those eyes...
He knew he should tell the truth but Balthrir had said Old Margary was loyal to the King. If he said he wasn't surely she'd never give him the twine. But what if a lie would make things worse? Couldn't he just politely say he wasn't exactly a fan of the King? Krish couldn't picture that going down well and if he stumbled here his quest would be over in a heartbeat.
He looked into those eyes; old enough to have seen mountains rise up, towering above the land, before the ages weathered them down to gravel. Perhaps her pupils had swallowed the whites and the irises in a desperate bid to allow in more light as her sight failed. He was lost and afraid in the chasm of her unseen eyes; darkness beyond darkness. He must find a way out.
“I am loyal to His Majesty,” said Krish.
He could sense Balthrir stifling a sigh behind him.
Old Margary did not move. Some time later she turned away, taking the ball with her.
What had he done? Was this it? Would she throw the ball away? Destroy it? He looked to the window. If she tossed it out there he knew he could find it. What about the fire? He kept his eye on the fire.
But Old Margary had placed down the ball of twine on the worktop. Now she was working at a furious pace (furious for her, at least). She picked up the skull of a small creature, tore it into four or five pieces and one by one crushed the fragments with a pastel and mortar. She hurled the powder into a cauldron and tossed in number of potions.
Then she held out her hand to Krish. Krish didn't know quite what she wanted until he noticed that she was eyeing his forearm. He placed his arm in her coarse, dry palm. With astonishing speed she pricked his skin with a needle and then placed the drop of blood she had collected in the concoction. Then she added a drop of her own. He noticed that the bead of red rose to cover the tiny pierce in the witch's skin was meagre and slow to arrive at the surface; as if her blood itself was old and frail.
The foul potion bubbled away and soon Old Margary produced a ladle, poured the mixture into a cup and offered it to Krish.
This draft was clearly meant to make him truthful. And that was what Balthrir had said – tell the truth. There was no point in lying now. None whatsoever. Even if he tried this stuff, whatever it was, it would correct him.
“I am loyal to The King.”
The words had slipped out. A thought had shot into his head at the last moment: If it'll make you tell the truth then lie! If you can't lie it'll make you tell the truth so you HAVE to risk it!
Old Margary's face was still but he knew she was furious. She snatched the twine from the worktop. Krish was prepared to fight. Could he grab for the twine from her rough hands?
He needn't have bothered even considering this. The ball was thrust into his hands, Old Margary turned away and Krish never looked into those haunting eyes again.
Krish was confused. He began to turn to Balthrir but his gaze settled on the painting.
He could see it so clearly now. It was not grey. It was black. The colour of a tormented sky in the middle of a storm. A cloud billowing with thunder. But he hadn't seen the red before. Flecks of red set into the heads of cruel beasts. The arched backs of dogs, incandescent and ravenous. Frothing at their spiteful mouths, staring straight at him with their vicious eyes.
They were staring right at him. How had he not seen this before? Because they had turned. Yes, they had turned to him while he'd been watching them! He backed away, their growls filling his ears. How could he hear them? Their roaring fury was filling in his ears!
“Balthrir! BALTHRIR! They're after us! We gotta get out of here!”
Balthrir glanced in the direction Krish was looking in and then around the room but she clearly couldn't see a thing.
“What? What are you talking about?” she said.
“The dogs! Look at them! God, we've gotta get outta here!”
Balthrir's eyes settled on the painting. “Where do you see them? There! In that painting?”
“Yes! Yes! They're coming! Balthrir, we've got to go!”
Krish was yearning to run for it but Balthrir didn't budge. Something was dawning on her
“A malshrael...” she said. “Come on! We should never 'ave come 'ere!”
Balthrir headed for the hatch.
Krish followed, the heat of the fire stung his eyes as he passed. Then the dogs. The dogs were rushing across the room to him. Bigger and clearer and more fearsome than before. There were bearing down on him! Charcoal skin, barely any fur, tight over bones. Murderous eyes. Spittle hanging from their mouths. Cruel, shape teeth. His whole body flinched as the sound of their bloodcurdling snarls shook him. A scream shot from his throat.
“Krish! Open yer eyes!”
Krish opened his eyes. They were gone.
“I...I...” Krish stammered as Balthrir dragged him out. Where had they gone?
“Next time yer blink, remember to open yer eyes again!”
“What?! They weren't shut...” Krish caught one last glance of Old Margary, huddled in the corner, feeling as if her ancient eyes were boring into him through the back of her skull, as they fled via the hatch.
“The fire got in yer eyes,” said Balthrir. “Yer closed 'em and didn't bother openin' them again. For some reason...”
“I told yer to tell the old bat the truth!” cried Balthrir as they rushed down the ladder. “She weren't gonna deny us anything if yer told her the King was a pompous old plonker! I just meant kind of avoid it and be polite! She was doin' us a favour! But she'd still 'ave 'elped. Yer don't lie to Old Malgary. You DO! NOT! LIE! T-”.
“But what happened! What... Oh, come on...those dogs-”
“They're not here.” And then more quietly she added. “Not yet.” He could see that Balthrir was suppressing panic. She hadn't had time to take everything in and the conclusion she was reaching was clearly something she didn't want to think about.
Whatever Krish was about to say was interrupted by a terrifying crash reverberating around the land. They turned to the horizon.
Silhouetted by the setting sun was the Black Palace. It shook (with rage, thought Krish). The monstrous sound was quickly followed with a brief but horrifying scream. Krish realised that with the delay between what he was seeing and the sound reaching them that the scream was probably what shook the palace.
“The King knows,” said Balthrir. Then in what was almost a whisper: “They're coming.”
Krish looked over the shadow-laden landscape, waiting for something to appear from the palace. For a hundred thousand knights to burst from the palace and head towards them. Or those dogs...those terrible, terrible dogs....
But nothing came.
“What's coming?” asked Krish.
Balthrir didn't answer. Her eyes were locked onto the palace which was still again. The whole panorama before them was filled with unmoving objects. Not a thing stirred. The silence was deafening. Staring at the eerie stillness of the land unnerved Krish; he felt he was scanning the landscape for the tiniest movement that would make him jump out of his skin. But not a thing stirred.
“I can't see anything,” said Krish.
“Yeah,” Balthrir took a deep breath and then exhaled slowly, quivering a little. “That's the thing I was most worried would 'appen...”