Blind Springs and the House of the Serpent
Our abrupt departure from Duwamish was very different from our arrival – instead of my horse Fallada, who had taken himself back to the Abbey to commune with Tinker (these two had struck up quite a rapport) I found myself facing a small black donkey who announced in a loud braying voice that she was my mount.
After spending time in Duwamish you are no longer surprised by trifles such as a talking donkey. And I loved donkeys, had done all my life. This little lady looked sweet, with her shiny black coat and soft, mealy coloured mouth, but I frankly wondered if she was strong enough to carry me and said so.
``Fools! For I also had my hour, One far fierce hour and sweet: There was a shout about my ears, And palms before my feet,” she said, quoting GK Chesterton at me. That was a little disconcerting, even for Dumwamish.
I gathered from this that she was reproving me for my doubts and climbed aboard. I had forgotten how uncomfortable donkeys are to ride. The sharp ridge that ran down her back made me feel as if I had straddled a wooden fence, and my toes dragged along the ground. My only comfort was that some of my companions looked as awkward as I felt, except for a few who seemed to have the hang of it with no trouble. I hung the long strap of my bag across my chest and grabbed the donkey’s bristly tuft of mane as we set off.
``My name is Christabel,” my mount announced as we plodded along. `` The lovely lady, Christabel, Whom her father loves so well, What makes her in the wood so late, A furlong from the castle gate?” She added as we followed the guide into a densely wooded forest. Tall trees sprang up on either side of the narrow path, blocking the sunlight, except for a few dappled patches that lit our way.
``Samuel Taylor Coleridge,” she added, convinced by my silence that I had missed the quote. Then she started singing Nessum Dorma until the other donkeys shouted her down.
``It’s very hard to meet one’s intellectual equal in this herd,” Christabel said loftily.
With Christabel’s loud voice stilled, the forest became very quiet except for a mysterious whispering in the trees as we rode on. I was feeling a lot less brave than when we started out.
Suddenly up ahead we heard a loud noise, like an avalanche approaching, and a group of hooded riders mounted on huge heavy horses surrounded us. I found myself being lifted off Christabel’s back as if I were no more than a feather – I came down with rather more force, though, on the back of the horse, and compulsively grabbed my hooded captor as the horse wheeled round.
“Friend, ahoy! Farewell! Farewell!” I heard Christabel braying after me, never at a loss for an apt quote, as the horse and rider headed off into the trees at a full gallop with me hanging on for dear life.
As we sped down the path I became aware that the rest of the group had vanished – presumably their captors had taken them in other directions. We kept galloping tirelessly, until the path opened out into a sunny meadow and the horse came to an abrupt stop, almost pitching me off.
``You get off here,” the rider said.
I slid to the ground. My legs felt like cooked spaghetti noodles, and I sat down abruptly in the grass.
``Who are you?” I said. ``What have you done with the others?”
The rider threw back the black hood – what is this thing they all have with hoods, I asked myself, and then my jaw dropped.
My captor wasn’t human. He had the head of an eagle, and now I could see what I thought were hands holding the reins were claws. Even the horse didn’t look like any other horse I had seen before – there was something dragonish about his head and his eyes had living flames in them.
``My name is Alhelm,” the gryphon said. ``Wear your spectacles from now on. You need to be able to see more than your puny human eyes will allow. Keep to the path until you meet the White Lady. Don’t lose your bag – she won’t let you pass unless you have the right token for her.” Then he wheeled his horse around and was gone.
Well! I thought. They certainly know how to do things in style round here. I could only surmise that Alhelm and the other hooded riders wanted us out of their forest as soon as possible, and progress was too slow on the donkeys. But since he hadn’t bothered to offer an explanation, all I could do was surmise.
Remembering his words, I delved into my back and took out the spectacles. They looked like something Dame Edna Everage would wear, with huge sparkly purple frames.
``Oh, this has got to be a joke,” I said aloud, and heard a tittering noise from just in front of me. I couldn’t see anything, so I put on the spectacles and found the source of the laughter at once.
Three tiny sprites stood in front of me, barring my way. All were dressed in leaves and wore blossoms in their hair. Their skin looked as if it were dusted with silver moonlight.
``White Lady straight ahead,” they laughed and shot up into the air, hovering just above my head. I clung tightly to my bag and set off along a ribbon of pathway that cut through the meadow.
After the darkness of the forest it was good to be out in the light again. I could hear the crash of breakers and knew I must be walking along a cliff top. I paused to eat one of the good Duwamish cakes we had been given for the journey, followed by a swig of Abby wine from my flask. The wine from the Abbey is invigorating, and tastes of mysterious herbs. I felt a spring in my step as I walked on.
The path dipped into a hollow, with a few scattered trees and carpets of wildflowers spreading out on either side. The glasses kept slipping, so I took them off. Just up ahead I could see what looked like a well. A drink of water seemed like a good idea, in spite of the fortifying effects of the Abbey wine, but as I approached the well, some force hurled me back and I landed with a bump.
``Good job it’s well padded,” I said to myself as I rubbed my bottom. I put the glasses back on to see what had stopped me.
I saw a beautiful unicorn, with a long flowing mane and tail that seemed to shimmer like a rainbow. She had very large, dark, expressive eyes and she was looking at me reproachfully.
``Why did you walk into me?” she said.
``I couldn’t see you without my glasses. Are you the White Lady?”
She bowed her head gracefully. “Lady Oriel,” she introduced herself. ``And you, traveller, do you have your token so you can pass this way?”
My mind went blank for a moment – Alhelm had said nothing about tokens. Then I remembered something and dived into my bag.
``Is this it?” I said, holding up the medallion.
She nodded again. ``Yes, that is the token you must have to enter my lands when you come this way,” she said. ``Throw it in the well.”
I did as I was told, and Lady Oriel swished her tail as she moved gracefully aside for me to pass.
``For Goodness’ sake,” she said. ``Keep your glasses on! We can’t have you blundering about like that.”
``Is this the way to the House of the Serpent and the Blind Well?” I said.
``Yes,” she replied. ``I hope they remembered to give you wings.”
I soon found out what she meant by that – the path ended abruptly at the edge of a wide gorge, through which a mighty river was rushing to the sea. There was no bridge, and it was too far to jump. Now I knew what the wings were for – but there was only one problem. I couldn’t stand flying.
I dumped the bag on the ground and took out the wings. They looked ridiculously small to carry me. But as I wriggled around putting them on, they suddenly seemed to snap into place and I found my feet lifting off the ground. I had to grab my bag hastily before I soared off and left it behind.
It took me a while to steer the things – at first I circled around helplessly, then there was a nasty moment when I got caught in an eddy in the gorge and started heading downwards at an alarming rate – but the wings started beating steadily and lifted me out. I decided to leave it to them from then on, and soon I was across the gorge and hovering over the meadow on the other side. At this point the wings folded themselves abruptly and slipped from my shoulder blades. Once again I landed with a bump and watched the wings fly off, clearly disgusted with my flying skills.
The path now sloped steeply down to the sea. In spite of landing on my derriere so many times, I could feel my adventures (and perhaps the Abbey wine) having a rejuvenating effect on me as I barrelled happily down toward the beach. It was a deep horseshoe shaped beach, surrounded by high cliffs with open ocean beyond. I plunged into the surf and washed the heat and dust of the road off, and sat on a rock and wondered what to do next.
I had left a candlestick and a tiny anchor. The anchor must have some significance here, I thought, but what use was a candlestick? Darkness was falling and I needed somewhere safe to shelter for the night, so I walked along the shore until I came to a cave. I stepped in gingerly – after all, I had met many strange creatures today – but it seemed roomy and dry. That’s when I realised what the candlestick was for. In the pack with my Dumwamish cakes and flask of wine I found a candle and a flint. Soon I was sitting in a circle of light, eating my last cake and hoping I would find my way to the House of the serpents and the Blind Springs tomorrow.