Excerpt from Ierra's Firebird

Phisbe and Ierra continued on their quest from the Valley of the Mists.  They spent two uneventful days hiking towards the river and the swamp beyond.  Ierra fretted at every moment of delay, gobbling dried meat down while she walked and begrudging every hour of sleep, even when she was ready to drop from exhaustion.  Phisbe was annoyingly placid and logical, pointing out that Ierra’s becoming sick or dropping from exhaustion would hardly help their cause.

Finally they reached the river.  Ierra dropped to her knees beside the churning water and washed the dirt and dust from her hands and face before gulping the icy liquid down.  Phisbe wriggled to the ground and lapped up a bit, while Ierra giggled at the way his body stretched over the water to dunk a head into it.

/That’ss enough out of you, ssmall one.  You look like a rabbit when you drink./

”I’m sorry, Phisbe.  So where do we find this flower?”

/Ssomewhere along the bank I ssuppose.  I’ve never actually ssearched for one./

“Do you know what color it is?”

/A ssoft blue./

They wandered along the riverbank, scrutinizing both sides for a hint of a small, blue flower.  Suddenly, a pair of long blue arms burst from the water and dragged Ierra down!

She struggled and fought as the undines pulled her upriver.  “What are you doing!  Let go,” Ierra said.  The undines ignored her and kept swimming. 

“I’m not working with the dwarves,” Ierra said between sputters of water.  Would the horrible undines ever leave her alone?  “at least tell me where you’re taking me!”

Obviously, the undines had no desire to tell her anything.  After what felt like hours of their smooth, clammy hands and Ierra’s being half choked to death, they finally  dumped her  onto a tiny stretch of beach.  They moved a few feet back into the water, then simply bobbed there, waiting. 

“What do you think they want?” Ierra asked.  She glanced about the strip of beach.  A few trees shaded the area, leaves reddening with the turn of the season.  “And where are we?”

/obvioussly, they want uss as their prisoners, and are determined that we won’t esscape as we did before,/ Phisbe said.

“So they’re watching that we don’t swim away.  But how long will they keep us here?”

‘Until Nulaan judges uss I ssuppose.  Hers is the only island in Lake Lushana.’

Nulaan!  But she doesn’t care for anyone except her water dwellers.  And sometimes not even them.”

/I admit, she will probably allow the undines to do what they wish with usss./

“That doesn’t sound good.”

/Precissely.  They may try to use usss as hossstages, but are more likely to kill us.  Both demons and undines have short vision with ssstrategy./

“But they’re letting us travel all over the island.  Is there some way we could escape other than swimming?  I know I’m not good enough to dodge or outrun undines on the water.”

/We can sssearch, but there will be little to asssissst usss./

Ierra walked along the shore of the little island, Phisbe dangling from her shoulders.  Off in the distance, Ierra could see a dazzling emerald castle.  It shone against the blue sky like a torch in the darkness.  “That must belong to Nulaan.”

            /Yesss.  But she might throw usss off the island, and certainly would not bother to ressscue usss from undines./

            “So no help there.”  Ierra wandered farther along the beach.  If she hadn’t been trapped there, she might’ve considered the island a nice place.  Birds soared through the air from large, leafy trees and the entire island was covered in brightly colored little flowers.  The fresh smell of the river mixed with scents of flowers and thick tree sap, making the island seem as if it was spun out of candy.  Ierra closed her eyes for a moment and sighed, as she allowed the ambiance to penetrate her from head to toes.

/Ssstop!/

Ierra jerked her eyes open.  “What!  What is it?”

/By your feet./

“I don’t see anything.  Not even a poisonous snake.”

/Very sssily.  I mean that white blosssom./

There was a clump of tiny, lacelike flowers growing by the water’s edge.  Ierra ran a finger along their soft, delicate edge, then suddenly she understood.  “Nulaan’s Kiss!”

/Exactly./

Ierra picked the entire clump of flowers and stowed them carefully in her pack, wrapped in a wad of cloth meant to be used for bandages.  “I guess Nulaan helped us whether she wanted to or not.”

/And we possesss two of the ssspell components.  We have made sssome progresss at leassst./ 

            A shadow fell over Ierra and Phisbe.  Ierra glanced up.  “That cloud is moving so fast.  Almost as if it’s flying.”

            /And ssso it is./

            ‘What?”

            The “cloud” floated lower and faster now, almost as if it swooped towards their position.  Ierra’s eyes widened and she felt her jaw hit the ground.  As the cloud moved closer, it began to resemble an immense bird of prey.

            Ierra ran for the cover of the trees.  /Missst eagles are quite intelligent,/ Phisbe said.  /I doubt it means to attack./

            Ierra sagged against a broad trunk, panting.  She was out of its range, at least for now.  The broad leaves would surely shelter her from the bird, whatever its intentions.

            The mist eagle dived under the canopy of trees, slower now but still clearly heading for her.  Ierra could see through it a bit, but it appeared far more solid now that it was closer.  The eagle was gray from its beak to tailfeathers, with two black eyes being the only relief of color.  It was larger than Ierra was, even with its wings delicately folded.  Wicked talons gleamed from its, no his claws.  Despite the predatory gleam in the bird’s eyes, Ierra could tell from only a quick glance that the bird was intelligent.  Something about the way his eyes followed her, and how he swerved gracefully to avoid obstacles with effortless beats of enormous gray wings.

            Finally the bird landed in front of her with a bit of a thump.  No matter how graceful he was in the air, he appeared more clumsy on the ground.  Ierra found herself squinting.  The mist eagle reflected the sunlight in a burst of silver-gold that threatened to blind her.  He looked very little like a cloud now, or even fog, yet he shimmered unsteadily against the soft green earth.  The eagle tilted his head, obviously waiting for something from her.

            “What should I do?” Ierra asked.

            /Go clossser, sssmall one.  The missst eagle is unlikely to bite./

            That didn’t sound very encouraging.  Iera swallowed hard and dragged her feet a few steps closer to the eagle.  Finally, she lifted her trembling chin to meet the eagle’s eyes.

            He nodded to her, bobbing his head in a surprisingly birdlike way, given how insubstantial he was.  Ierra waited as the eagle stared into her eyes, scrutinizing her.  Finally he hopped forwards, little tiny hops that gave Ierra a few moments to accostom herself to his closeness.  Then suddenly, the eagle flapped his wings and launched himself towards the sky. 

            Almost as an afterthought, he snatched Ierra up in his talons, Phisbe still clinging to her shoulders.  Ierra flinched, waiting for the sharp talons to pierce her shoulders.  However, the talons gleaming against her arms actually gripped the fabric of her shirt very delicately, not so much as grazing her skin.

            “Phisbe, where is this creature taking me!”

            /I have no idea.  At leassst mossst potential dessstinations are off Nulaan’s island./

            “Well that’s true enough.  I suppose the mist eagle is solving one of our problems.  But I don’t want to be a dinner for baby eagles.”

/Unlikely.  I would be sssurprised if a missst eagle attempted to consssume a human.  They are a sssymbol of luck and good prossspects./

“That doesn’t mean it isn’t intending me for dinner.  The truth is, we have no idea what its intentions are.”

/Ssstop being sssuch a pesssimist./  Phisbe sighed and clung a bit closer to Ierra’s shoulders.  Goodness, was the snake actually planning to sleep while they were being carried off to an unkonwn fate?  Phisbe didn’t seem concerned, but he also hadn’t said anything to calm Ierra’s terror.  Ierra’s heart seemed to thump through her entire body, even as she tried to control her breathing.  Panicking would do nothing for her.  Struggling with the mist eagle would only result in her being gored by his talons or dropped to the ground far below.  Ierra stared wide-eyed at the tiny lake below them, gleaming in the sunlight.  She would never survive a fall from this high up, and had no desire to meet the undines again.  Her only choice was to wait and to see what happened.

From the angle of the sunlight, Ierra guessed that they were traveling Southwest.  Back towards the demons after her days of travel.  The days before the volcano exploded were dwindling quickly.  She didn’t have a few days to waste in walking back to the lake.  Not to mention the swamps beyond!  However would she save the seers before their home was drenched in firey rock?

The eagle began a slow descent and Ierra craned her head (while trying not to dislodge the coils of sleeping snake) to look for their destination.  The earth was dry and barren below, with no signs of the volcanic rock and geysers.

 There!  Brown against the brown earth was a little cottage made of mud bricks (no trees for wood could be found in this land, that was certain.)  Could this be their destination?  Why would the mist eagle carry her to a house?

A woman in a red skirt and matching kerchief left the house and waved up at Ierra and the mist eagle.  The eagle landed softly in front of the house, and carefully retracted his claws from Ierra’s shirt. 

“Hello there,” the woman said.  She had nut brown skin and dark hair that she wore in a tight little knot under her kerchief.  She was big-boned and strong looking, while smile lines creased her face.  The woman resembled an enormous baked apple, and there was something so harmless looking about her that Ierra felt herself smiling back at her.

“Come inside,” the woman said.  “You look worn out and confused, which isn’t surprising.  When I met Smoke there for the first time, I was quite startled and I was expecting him.  Well, follow me.  Night'll come soon and I have a fire going.”

Ierra felt Phisbe move a little.  Trust him to wake up at the mention of a heat source.  The woman was right; it was growing dark outside.  There wouldn’t be any harm in following her, and Ierra had to admit that she was curious.

The inside of the house was neat as a craftsman’s workroom, with houseplants growing out of their pots on every counter and the warm, spicy scent of gingerbread filling the air.  Red and blue cushions heaped themselves on cozy wooden chairs and pink lamps lent a rosy glow to the room, rounding and softening the white walls under their cheerful knick knacks and paintings of flowers and fruit. 

A tiger-striped gold and orange cat strode over to Ierra, demanding to be petted.  As she scratched its ears, she felt Phisbe hiss disapprovingly in her mind.  Muttering things about large furry menaces that Ierra chose to ignore, Phisbe stalked to the fire, leaving Ierra wondering how it was possible to do such a thing without legs.

“Come sit down,” the woman said, bustling about putting a kettle on the fire to boil and laying dainty blue and white china cups on a tray.  “Now who are you, dear?”

“Ierra.”

“And I’m Abigail.  Do sit.”

Ierra gingerly perched on a chair, trying not to disturb the mound of cushions.  “Do you live here all by yourself?”

The woman finished setting china on a large tray and brought it over to where Ierra sat.  She plopped it on the low table, then let herself drop onto the other cushioned chair.  “Yes, dear.  Just Sunnyheart and Smoke and I.  That surprises you, does it?”

“Well, yes.  That is, I would think you’d be lonely.  And this place must be dangerous; you’re right between the undines and the demons, aren’t you?”

“But not too dangerous for a little girl, all by herself, I suppose.”  Ierra felt her cheeks warm a bit, as she looked away and murmured an apology.  “No, no, dear,” Abigail continued.  “You’re quite right and I appreciate the concern.  Distance isn’t so much of a problem for me, and I think I’m sufficiently well protected.  You see, I’m a witch.

“A witch!”

“Well, I suppose I really should say I’m a mage.  A few witches have been giving the rest of us quite a bad name, and the head of the Academy decided we should change things a bit.  But I’ve always had troubles adapting to new policies.  So there you are.  Do you like honey in your tea?”

“Well, yes. 

“You certainly came a long way to be here.  I assume you’re from the West?”

“Yes.  Well, and a bit North.  I’m not one of the Feral Elves.”

“So you’ve come even farther.  Is there something you seek?  Running away from home?”

“In a way, I suppose.  That is, it wasn’t my choice. I, well--”

“Take your time and start at the beginning.  Oh and do try some of these cookies.  You must be hungry.”

“Thank you.”  Ierra took a cookie.  They were surprisingly spicy and wonderfully warm on her tongue.  Ierra breathed in the strong, sweet scent and leaned back in her cushioned chair.  The story poured out of her bit by bit as the woman nodded and refilled her teacup without saying a word.

“So you need to find a firebird feather,” the woman murmured.  “That could be quite difficult.” 

“You know where firebirds live?”

“He knows,” Abigail said, nodding at the door in the direction of the mist eagle’s departure.  “He’s seen them.  They fly up around the top of the world, swooping and flapping their wings that look like burning light against the clouds.”

“But how can I ever go up there?”

“There is a tree.  Not too far from here, as luck runs.  It’s the tree to the top of the world, and people say that its branches brush the very clouds.”

“So you haven’t been there yourself?”

“I?  No.  I’m just a witch who came to this desolate place to study and learn.  Thanks to the undines and demons, the magical balance here is truly quite unique.”

“So I just climb up the tree?”

“Some adventurers have done so.  I hear that there is an easier way, a secret passage to the top.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m sorry, child.  I know few details about such things.

 

Ierra nodded and started towards the door.  “I’ll start right away.  Thank you so much for all your help.”

“What’s the rush, child, the firebirds won’t disappear.  Stay the night and take some time to rest before your next wild adventure.  Look, night’s already fallen.”  Ierra glanced at Phisbe, but the snake had apparently fallen asleep coiled by the fire.  “Oh, don’t worry about your friend there.  He seems happy enough and I’ll give him some of Sunnyheart’s milk when he wakes.”

Ierra nodded and shyly thanked the witch for her hospitality.  They sat down to a lovely dinner of a rich vegetable casserole, fresh fruit, and plenty more cookies.   

Afterwards, the witch lit a candle with a flick of her finger and motioned for Ierra to follow her.  The elf girl was still staring at the candle when Abigail tapped her on the shoulder, an amused smile hovering about her lips.  “I can do much more impressive things than that, but you’ll like them better after a good night’s sleep.”  Ierra smiled back and followed her up the worn wooden steps.

A stripe of pink flowers divided the room’s pale pink wall into two rosy halves, while a dark pink flowery carpet swathed the floor in softness.  Pink flowered matching pillow, bedspread, and curtsins completed the picture.  Even the white whicker chair had pink flowered embroidery.  Upon closer glance, the cloths were all different, but they were similar enough that this was almost unnoticeable.  The dresser was a very pale pink, but stood out from the white tray placed on it.  The wardrobe was brown and the basin was white, but they were placed unobstrusively against the wall where one entered.  The small nightstand beside the white framed bed was covered in a pink cloth and a white doily.  A small picture on the wall wasn’t pink, but the picture’s mushrooms were close enough to leave that vague and unclear.  A rosy lampshade cast an even pinker shade on everything in the room, including her face when she peered into the mirror.  This was just too much.

“Sleep well, dear,” Abigail bustled and left her in the room.  Ierra smiled.  The bed did look incredibly cozy, despite the single-minded décor.

 

In the morning, Ierra and a surprisingly placid Phisbe bid farewell to Abigail.

“Just follow the curve of the lake and you’ll reach the tree,” she told them.  “Good luck.

 

The Tree to the Top of the World had an amazingly thick trunk.  It would take Ierra a good portion of an hour to walk around it.  Ierra supposed that made sense; the branches would hardly be supported by a spindly one.  Still, she just stood there, staring up and up.

The trunk was coarse, with reddish bark whose fibers felt almost like fur.  She craned her neck again, straining to see the top.  Tufts of leafy branches appeared here and there, but there was no end in sight.

“How can I possibly climb this?”

“There’s a sssecret passage, remember?”

“But where?”

“I cannot sssay.”

“Then how do I find it?”

“Asssk?”

“That’s not funny.”

“It wasn’t meant to be.  Often mortals overlook the obviousss in search of complicated anssswers.”

“Oh.  Um, tree?  Can you help me at all?”

A thin, green snake uncoiled from where it clung near-invisibly to a low tree branch.  It blinked at them and tilted its head.

“She wantsss to know why you’re talking to trees.”

“You told me to!”

“Yesss.  I was only translating.”

“Well, can you ask her how we reach the top?”

“I sssuppose.”

A few moments of dead silence passed. 

“She sssays to sssearch for a sssmall knob near the bassse of the trunk.  Tap it three times.”

“All right.  Can you thank her for me?”

“Of courssse.”

 

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