Sunday 19 June 2011

Tales of the Dreamscape - Sir Gallant part 2

Here is the second and final part of the tale of Sir Gallant, first knight of the dreamscape.

The Tale of Sir Gallant the Firmhearted
Sir Gallant fell and fell. He stretched out his hands and tried to brace himself for the ground but it did not come. The blackness rushed past his head faster and faster. He could see nothing, feel nothing - only the wind racing past, the blackness through and through him. He could not feel his hands, nor his legs, could not weave the dream. This was it - once he hit the ground it would all be over. He would die here in the blackness. Or would fall forever, spectral fingers tearing at his insides.

    No! He forced back the terror. He was falling. Nothing more. It was a fresh sensation, something never before experienced. To fall at such a speed for such a time - it was unbelievable. No, more than that - it was incredible, a freedom never felt before. And Sir Gallant started to laugh.
    He laughed so hard his sides began to ache, and tears trickled down his cheeks. He laughed until he barely knew who he was. He whooped and cried aloud, and laughed the darkness from his lungs. And then Sir Gallant found that he was not falling at all - he was flying.
    For a few moments he seemed to soar through the darkness, buoyed on tides of wind and air, before he found his feet once more on the ground.
    Around him the darkness had lessened, and now it seemed more like the dark of night. Sir Gallant stretched and looked around him. He saw that he was in some sort of clearing. Twisted trees stood all around him, a mockery of their former beauty. No stars shone and there was no moon - the faint light was as much a mystery as the former blackness.
    “Smoke!” Sir Gallant called, “Smoke! Where are you?”
    “She is lost,” the dormouse whispered in his ear.
    Sir Gallant sighed, and felt a weight in his heart. Though Smoke was not alive in any real sense of the word, she was more than a friend - she was a part of him. Without her the Dreamscape held less promise.
    “You are still with me, I see,” Sir Gallant said to the dormouse that quavered against his neck but he got no answer. Perhaps it was too scared to say anything more.
    “Well, I must press on if I am to find the cause of all this, and since I have no idea where we are, one way seems as good as any other.”
    He struck out in a direction chosen at random. All paths led into the forest, between the black trees. He drew the sword of night and kept his shield firmly in hand - their physical presence alone seemed to give him the strength to continue.
    As Sir Gallant pressed through the twisted forest, the trees appeared to change their shapes - branches became claws, jagged gashes formed into fanged mouths - yet he never saw them move. No noise could be heard. Even Sir Gallant’s heavy tread failed to make so much as a whisper. On edge, with rising nerves, Sir Gallant increased his pace, heading to where the trees seemed thicker and more closely packed.
    The dank earth spat thorned creepers across his path, curling and twisting towards him. Sir Gallant sprang back, hacking at them with the Sword of Night. At each cut, the plants seemed to weep blood but the vines were too many. Each creeper Sir Gallant cut away was replaced by two more, ever reaching, driving him backwards. He sliced at them faster, the sword of night cut through them like wisps of spider web, but it was not enough - still they came on. He stepped back again and again. A thorn sliced his cheek and Sir Gallant recoiled. With his shield he tried to sweep the vines away and for a moment it seemed to be working - but their abnormal growth only increased in speed. Coiling around his shield, Sir Gallant found it torn from his grasp. He took another step backwards and tripped over a root - the sword of night almost fell from his grasp but he managed to keep a tight grasp on its hilt.
    He stood and faced the oncoming thorns, sweeping at them with his blade - but the vines had stopped, forming a wall in front of him, a strange weave of bleeding thorns. Sir Gallant paused to consider his situation. It was only at that moment that he realized he was slowly sinking into the mud. He tried to lift his feet from the mire but the armour he wore weighed him down and he could not free himself - the sludge was sucking him down. In a few moments, Sir Gallant was knee deep, struggling to free himself. Stretching as far as he could, he tried to reach for nearby branches to pull himself free but there was nothing in reach. It was as if the trees had pulled away. Still he sank. Now he could not move his legs at all.
    Looking about him, he saw what seemed to be a patch of more solid ground - with all his strength; Sir Gallant plunged the sword of night into the earth and tried to pull himself free. At first it seemed to be working - heaving on the sword he began to move - but somehow the mire grew around him, swallowing the sword of night. Sir Gallant dragged the sword back - the black mud had risen to his waist and soon he would be completely submerged.
    His legs were utterly trapped. Desperation rising, Sir Gallant tore the helmet from his head and threw it away, gasping for air. He tried to remove the rest of his armour but could not find the buckles - the weight was dragging him under.
    “I can’t move!” he shouted in frustration.
    A quivering on his shoulder suddenly reminded him of the dormouse.
    “I can’t get free,” Sir Gallant said, “but I can free you.”
    “Why would you do that?” the little voice whimpered. “Why help me?”
    “Because you are here, because I can, and because I rather like you,” answered Sir Gallant with an attempt at a smile. “Now I can throw you onto firmer ground. I’ll try to be gentle.”
    Carefully, he picked the dormouse up in his gauntleted hand. His small eyes looked about nervously.
    “Okay, here we go.” He tossed the dormouse as far as he could, trying to be both gentle and certain of reaching solid earth. The dormouse squealed but landed on its feet and seemed to be unhurt.
    “Now get out,” Sir Gallant shouted, as the mud reached his armpits. “Warn the Duke.”
    The dormouse did not need to be asked twice and scurried off into the shadows. Sir Gallant watched it go with sadness and joy. At least he had done something, however small. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and waited for the end.
    An excited squeaking roused him a moment later. The dormouse had returned and had somehow managed to push a tree root into the mud towards him.
    “How did you…?” Sir Gallant began but the dormouse cut him short.
    “No time, no time. Come on.”
    Sir Gallant grabbed the tree root with both hands and pulled with his last trace of strength. The root held! Agonisingly slowly, Sir Gallant began to rise from the mud, until he lay on the ground trying to catch his breath.
    “That was too close,” he said. “Thanks - you saved my life.”
    The dormouse looked away.
    “Are you embarrassed?” Sir Gallant asked, smiling.
    “No, no, no” the dormouse protested, and Sir Gallant found himself laughing. The dormouse watched him for a moment, and then he too began to laugh - a strange, squeaky sort of a laugh.
    “You are a fine friend,” Sir Gallant told the dormouse, “and if nothing else comes of my quest, I am glad to have met you.”
    “Come on then, we can’t lie about all day.”
    Sir Gallant rose to his feet and looked down at his mud-drenched armour. The weight of it had grown so much that he could barely move. Reluctantly, he removed the plates and the mail - they had looked exceptional in the palace but here in the shadow they had been nothing but trouble. A terrible thought suddenly struck him.
    “My sword!” he cried, and ran to the edge of the mire. It was no use - it was nowhere to be seen. “I should never have let it go,” he sighed.
    The dormouse squeaked and ran to his side. Sighing, Sir Gallant reluctantly turned away - the sword of night was lost beneath the earth. He picked up the dormouse and placed him once more on his shoulder. The way forward was barred, and without the sword of night they could not hope to cut their way through the barbs.
    “Perhaps the thorns rose up to keep us out of somewhere,” Sir Gallant mused, and struck out along the length of the wall, looking for an opening.
    After time without measure, for time itself seemed to have lost all meaning, he found a way past the wall. He rounded the corner only to find that it was in fact merely the outer edge of a maze of thorns, walls of vines and wooden knives that rose high above his head.
    On and on, Sir Gallant walked the labyrinth in the indistinct glow. Turning this way and that, searching for the centre. When he met a dead end and could not continue, Sir Gallant carefully retraced his steps, yet found the path behind him had somehow altered while his back was turned. He could not find the centre.
    Years seemed to pass by, yet he could not stop or rest but felt compelled to walk on and on, through row after row of blood red thorns. At times, Sir Gallant despaired of ever reaching the centre and sought instead to find a way out of the labyrinth. But the maze was without end.
    And slowly, so slowly Sir Gallant did not even notice it begin, a sensation grew in his mind of being followed. Someone or something was behind him, something vast and deadly. The hairs on the back of Sir Gallant’s neck stood on end but he dared not turn his head.
    Sensation became certainty. Someone was following him, unhurried but gaining ground. Sir Gallant’s heart began to quail in terror - yet his legs refused to run. Every sense he possessed screamed at his legs to hurry, and yet they would not, though they shook with fear. And all the time the presence grew behind him, huge and unnamable. He could not run.
    And yet, if this was to be his end he had to try to find out the nature of the trouble. Perhaps, somehow, the Duke of Dreams would be able to learn from his errors. Perhaps the Dreamscape could be saved. And though he had lost his horse and his armour, though his shield was gone and the sword of night was lost, he still wore his duty and carried his honour before him. Closing his eyes, Sir Gallant summoned his last ounce of courage, stayed his feet, and turned.
    And there was nothing, nothing at all - except for an opening in the thorns that had not been there a moment earlier. Looking through the hedge, he could see a large square free from thorns. Sir Gallant’s heart lifted - he felt born anew. This was the centre of the maze, and now, perhaps, he would find some answers.
    “How did you do it?” squeaked a familiar voice in his ear. Why did he keep forgetting the dormouse?
    “Do what?” Sir Gallant replied as he strolled into the centre of the maze.
    “Defeat your fear?”
    “Because I had to - it was my duty to my Duke,” he said and then, after a moment’s thought, “and to myself. If I could not save the Dreamscape, who would I be? Where would I go? This is my home.”
    And then Sir Gallant was in the centre of the maze. There was no sign to tell him it was so, no fountains or statues, but still he was certain. Yet there seemed to be nothing here, nothing unusual or different.
    “What do you mean?”
    “A place you belong,” answered Sir Gallant, not really thinking. “Somewhere you can be yourself.”
    “I think I would like that.”
    Sir Gallant stopped. He understood what the darkness was in his heart, though it would take a few more moments for his mind to catch up. He lifted the dormouse off his shoulder and held it at eye-level.
    “I think I am finally beginning to understand what is going on, my little friend. You are no dormouse, no avatar of the dream - I thought you were a figment of my own mind but somehow you can speak.
    “In times of danger, when the darkness acted against me, it was almost like you weren’t on my shoulder at all. And though I lost Cloud and all else I possessed, you stayed with me.
    “You are not my creation, nor a part of me – I don’t understand it yet but somehow this great darkness is part of you. Who are you really?”
    The dormouse let out a high-pitched squeak and leapt from his hand high into the air. Before his feet hit the dirt they were changing. It was dreamweaving of a kind Sir Gallant had never seen - the dormouse seemed to twist violently, as if its transformation was excruciating and out of control. In mere moments his body grew and wrenched this way and that. But a moment later he resolved into a human form - a small child dressed in rags huddled on the floor. The dormouse had become a little girl, sobbing against her knees.
    “Hey, it’s alright,” Sir Gallant said, kneeling beside her and putting his arm around her shoulders.
    The girl stopped crying, and lent on his arm. He stroked her mousy hair.
    “My name is Danya,” she whispered.
    “Pleased to meet you Danya, I am still Sir Gallant, but you can call me Traveller. I hope we can still be friends.”
    “Friends,” she said, and looked at him with eyes red from tears, “I have never had a friend.”
    “Yes you have,” he answered, “we have been friends since we met, whilst you were still a dormouse.”
    At that, she smiled, and he smiled back.
    “But this darkness is destroying my home.”
    “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it. I don’t know what is happening to me. But it hurts - it hurts all the time.”
    Suddenly, a tremor shook her tiny frame “someone’s coming - please, help me.”
    “I will. Tell me where you are,”
    “It’s getting dark.”
    Danya’s image started to fade - she was waking.
    “Where are you? What can you hear?”
    “A train is rattling past, rush of water, footsteps, loud, getting louder. Please, I don’t want to go. Traveller! Help me.”
    “I will, Danya, I will find you. I swear it.”
    Danya was gone.

*  *  *

    For three long months, Traveller did not enter the Dreamscape. Each day he rose from dreamless rest and fought the urge to take the sleepers. His waking body felt so stiff - weak and wasted. There had not been a reason to spend so long in the physical world since he had first woken in the Dreamscape; there had been nothing to call him back.
    It took him three days to adjust his eyes to the gloom again, to see in the dark below London. Three days to adjust his eyes and gain the strength to use them. The name of Sir Gallant felt strange in the gloom. He abandoned it in the heaps of rubbish. He was nothing but Traveller again.
    Day by day he walked the sewers, navigating the labyrinthine crawl-ways, listening always for the sound of trains and running water. Sometimes he heard the one, sometimes the other. He shouted Danya’s name but heard no response.
    When he stumbled on a dreamer he would sometimes sit and watch them sleep, imagining the glory of the Dreamscape behind their fluttering eyes. When they awoke he questioned them - “have you heard any trains?” “is there a river nearby?” Most of the time they did not answer - but looked upon him with wide eyes, before swallowing sleepers and returning to the comfort of home. Traveller envied their release. The real world was no place to spend your life.
    Those that responded to his questions had nothing useful to tell him - they had not spent much time waking, and why should they bother themselves with the pain of the real? Traveller sighed and pressed on.
    After three months of fruitless search, Traveller’s wandering mind found the dreamscape without the sleepers. A wisp of a ghost he drifted through the crystal sky, drawn towards the royal palace at the centre of everything. His body was weightless and ephemeral; he could not feel wind or cloud - only the sensation of being pulled. In moments he stood in the presence of the Duke of Dreams.
    “Your majesty,” Sir Gallant intoned, and knelt before him. “Please forgive this shadow form.”
    “I have been searching for you and have drawn you here. You survived the great shadow and yet have not returned to the Dreamscape. Why?”
    “Your majesty, the cause lies somewhere in the waking world. I am seeking her out but the search is hard - I am not used to the real.”
    “You seek a person? What is her name?”
    “She is called Danya and I do not believe she means us harm.”
    The Duke of Dreams stood awhile in thought as Sir Gallant’s spectral figure began to fade.
    “You are waking - but if Danya has joined the Dreamscape then my mind has touched hers. I gift you the raven called Sight; whisper her name before you sleep and Sight will lead you to her. You must be swift - the darkness spreads. In three days the palace shall be consumed.”
    “I shall not fail you, your majesty - the Dreamscape shall not fall.” Sir Gallant stood, and woke with a start.
    Before he slept again, Traveller whispered “Danya” into the darkness and fixed her image in his mind.
    He awoke from dreamless sleep, but with a fixed direction in his mind. Sight was leading him - soon he would find her.

*  *  *

    Traveller burst through the rotten door, nearly tripping over a pile of rubbish as he did so. There she was, staring at him with open eyes and a look of horror, a scream at the back of her throat.
    “Danya! It’s me! Traveller, I’m here to save you.”
    “But you were just a thing in my dream - you’re not real.”
    “You’re right,” he said, “and neither are you. Quickly now, we have to leave straight away.”
    A sharp kick to the small of his back told Traveller it was already too late.
    “Filthy rat,” snarled a voice like rocks scraping the floor. “You chose the wrong house to rob this time.”
    Traveller sucked in stale air through rotting papers. He tasted blood and felt real pain. With a great effort he rolled on to his back.
    “Who are you?” Traveller tried to sound confident but without his dream self he did not have the strength.
    “He’s the Beggar King,” whispered Danya.
    “That’s right,” the big man said. “This here’s my kingdom. And this one, why, she’s me Dukess.” The Beggar King chuckled at his own joke. He took a couple of long strides until he stood over Traveller’s prone form.
    “And this,” he said with a kick to Travellers ribs, “is what we do to sewer scum.” Another kick.
    Traveller writhed in pain - he had to distance himself from this, find a way out. After all, what was all of this but a new journey? Granted, he had never expected to travel in the real world again but whatever occurred Traveller was determined to be master of his own destiny.
    When the next kick came, Traveller was ready for it. He caught the heavy boot and dragged the Beggar King’s leg forward, sending the big man off balance. With as much force as he could muster, Traveller punched upwards, not even looking at his target. The Beggar King howled and fell to the floor.
    “Well your majesty,” Traveller said, standing and giving a mock bow. “I am no thief but a knight of the Dreamscape.” He pulled a knife from the man’s own belt and weighed it in his hands for a moment.
    “And this is what we do to kings!” He stabbed with all his might, grabbed Danya and fled.
    “Where are we going?” she asked, once she had regained her breath.
    “Somewhere safe.”
    “Is there anywhere like that?”
    “Oh yes,” Sir Gallant told her, leading her through the tunnels. “There is a place where the skies are always blue, where the forests dance and the people sing. Where there is no pain and you need never be afraid again.”
    “It sounds like a dream.”
    “It is a dream, and so are we.”

    That night the Dreamscape welcomed another dreamer, the first to come from London above. And like all dreamers, little Danya altered the fabric of the Dreamscape itself. No more was it a land simply of dreams but of nightmares also. But the Bridge of Rage and the Gates of Hate were always kept in check - the nightmare could not outstrip the dream; and the dream itself seemed brighter with its shadow beside it.
    Before the assembled crowds of the Dreamscape, the Duke of Dreams announced the first knight of the realm to rapturous applause. He presented Sir Gallant with the sword of night once more, for the sword is part of the night and cannot be lost forever.
    “Sir Gallant. You have done a great service to the Dreamscape - the greatest since its conception. Will you now return to your exploration? There is much that is new to be seen and charted now that your friend has joined us.”
    By his side Danya, dressed in a gown of pink silk, looked up at him and smiled.
    “My liege, I shall return to the Dreamscape but no longer simply as a traveller. I am the first knight of the realm but I foresee that we will need others in time. The dreamscape needs brave souls - men and women prepared to risk the real for the sake of the dream. If there is a dreamer lost in the real, we will seek him out and bring him home.”
    The Duke of Dreams nodded. “A noble goal and a great duty. You are truly named Sir Gallant, and henceforth you shall be the Grandmaster of a new knightly order. Have you given any thought to the sigil and sign of this order?”
    “I have my Duke, and with your permission, I proclaim that we shall be the order of the Mouse.”
    The tear-drop shield that had once been empty now filled with a rich purple, a gold mouse rampant emblazoned across it. Silver armour shining once more, Sir Gallant mounted Smoke, who pawed the ground, anxious to be off. Sight cawed twice and landed on Sir Gallant’s shoulder. With visor raised, Sir Gallant looked down at Danya. “Shall we go?” he asked.
    She giggled and jumped onto the saddle, becoming a pink dormouse even as her hands touched the leather.
    Sir Gallant raised the sword of night to the Duke of Dreams in salute, turned Smoke around, and galloped into the Dreamscape.