Monday 6 June 2011

Tales of the Dreamscape - Sir Gallant part 1

The Tale of Sir Gallant the Firmhearted

    This is the tale of Sir Gallant the Firmhearted, first knight of the Dreamscape, founder and grandmaster of the Order of the Mouse. It begins many years ago, when the Dreamscape was still in its infancy. The Duke of Dreams had sat in his royal palace for a year and a day, drawing the people of the Dreamscape about him. It was a time for exploring this new and fertile world. The land was free from pain and free from fear; until the great darkness came, there had been no need for a knight.

    The Forest of Fire was first to be touched by the darkness. It was a warm summer’s day, for in the Dreamscape at that time, every day was summer. First, a murder of crows was seen rising up from the burning forest. Coldeyes the Soothsayer was first to say that this was a portent of doom, and for once all agreed with his words - up to that day no crow had been seen in the Dreamscape.
    The following day a dark cloud began to spread across the sky, reaching down to the canopy and beyond. At its touch the flames that burned without heat became dull and soon faded. Forest creatures fled before the cloud in ever increasing numbers. Most of the dreamers of the wood fled as well. Some however, chose to stay, thinking that the darkness was but another new aspect of the Dreamscape, something fresh and novel. New it certainly was but none emerged unscathed from the touch of it. Only one survivor of the cloud was ever found. He walked into the royal palace like a man possessed, tearing at his own flesh in despair. The royal sorcerers could do nothing for him. He died amid incoherent screams.
    It was generally supposed that the Dreamscape took the form of the dreamers’ own minds, whether conscious or not, and that only the Duke of Dreams had the power to reshape the land according to his will. For three days and three nights the Duke of Dreams stared into his orb of sight, wrestling with the great darkness, spreading like a cancer. For three days and three nights he did not eat or drink, he merely stared into the orb, as crystalline tears fell from his eyes. Try as he might, the Duke could not dispel the darkness, nor could he so much as penetrate the black miasma to find its root. For the first time in his dreamlife, the Duke was at a loss. And still the darkness spread.
    At last, after a week of inaction, the Duke summoned his most trusted advisors and asked them what counsel they had to offer.
    “Ring the cloud with a great wall,” suggested the Duke of Chance. “Set up a barrier that the darkness cannot pass. Perhaps the destruction can be contained.”
    “Summon the greatest sorcerers and warriors,” were the words of the Grand Duchess, who considered the forest of fire to be her own personal domain. “We must avenge those we have lost by striking back in force.”
    “We should flee before it, my Duke,” suggested Coldeyes. “The Dreamscape has no known limits. Your majesty can sculpt a palace elsewhere, grander than the first.”
    These words did not move the Duke of Dreams. They had not felt the darkness as he had felt it within his orb, and so its power was beyond their comprehension. No wall could contain it, no army could strike at it, and in the end, there was nowhere to run – the growth of the darkness was accelerating.
    “My Duke,” said his consort, whose name had been Lament since the news had first reached the palace. “You should find someone to enter the darkness, someone to search out its root and discover the cause of this evil. My Duke, we need a hero.”
    And the Duke of Dreams smiled.

*  *  *

    At this time, Sir Gallant was known simply as Traveller and though he had never experienced true danger, he lived for adventure. Like most of the dreamers, he had found his first glimpse of the Dreamscape to be tantalising, and like most he set out to see the sights. Unlike most, however, he never settled down. Always on the move, Traveller declared that while there was still something new to see, he would continue his journey, and since the Dreamscape was in a state of almost constant flux he expected to travel forever. On one of his first forays into the mountains, a grey mare befriended him and remained his loyal and constant companion. He named the horse Smoke - for she could run like fog on the wind. Although he could not be sure, Traveller considered Smoke to be an avatar of his own curiosity. Such things were not unknown in the Dreamscape.
    Traveller was riding Smoke and galloping down the Empty River, wind in his hair, cool water all around. It was another glorious day of summer, just like every other day.
    A shiver ran down his spine. They slowed their pace. Something was wrong, eating away at the back of Traveller’s mind. Despite the crystal sunshine, despite the warm breeze and cloudless sky, a shadow fell over his heart. He had to go back, back to the palace at the heart of the Dreamscape.
    How he knew this, Traveller could not say, but the impulse was strong and he had long ago learned to trust his instincts. As he turned the mare around, she gave a little snort of disappointment.
    “Easy Smoke,” he whispered in her ear. “We’ll come back soon.”
    She swished her tail and bowed her head, which Traveller took as a sign of assent. Urging her forwards, he hoped that they would not be too late.

*  *  *

    An uneasy calm seemed to squat over the royal city, an unnatural quiet by the standards of the Dreamscape. There were no fire-eaters, card readers or sorcerers offering their wares on the cobbled paths. No potions or delicacies, and the fountain that usually overflowed with sparkling wine lay still as stone.
    As Traveller rode up to the palace itself, he saw few dreamers walking the roads. A man in a hooded cloak hurrying about his business; a priestess of the Unreal staring at the ground. Where was the joy and the laughter? What had become of the Dream?
    The wall around the palace was higher than usual, and crowned with a ring of thorns. The twin gates, of horn and of ivory, were sealed shut. Smoke paced nervously, sensing her masters concern.
    As he was wondering what he was doing there, and considered returning to the open plain where life was straightforward and free, the gates of horn opened of their own accord. Dismounting, Traveller stepped through, following the well-trod path to the throne room. To his shock, he found the marble blocks and columns had become dull granite. The Duke of Dreams was obviously disturbed.
    After only a few steps on the path, Traveller found himself inside the throne room that stretched to the sky above and seemed as wide as the Blissful Fields. On a throne draped in cloth of night sat the Duke of Dreams, restless, impatient and alone.
    “My Duke,” said Traveller, “I have answered the summons.”
    “Good, time is short. Do you know why you were summoned?”
    “No my Duke, though I feel that something is wrong in the Dreamscape. The sky is too dark, the land itself feels heavyhearted.”
    “I feel it too. Your affinity with the land is strong - that may prove useful.”
    The Duke of Dreams stood and seemed to think for a moment. Then his dark eyes lit up momentarily.
    “Yes, perhaps this will work. The Dreamscape needs a hero, Traveller. There is a great shadow spreading itself across the land, swallowing all it touches. Before this shadow, I am powerless - I cannot even penetrate its depths unaided. But perhaps you can succeed where I have failed. We must find the source of the corruption so that we can root it out. The Dreamscape needs a hero, Traveller, could that be you?”
    “My Duke, you honour me, but I am no hero. I am a wanderer, an explorer; I have little skill at dream-weaving and I fear that my courage will not be up to the task. Perhaps you should choose someone else. A gladiator perhaps, or one of the sorcerers.”
    “Your modesty does you credit. Hero or not, nevertheless you will go, for all our sakes.”
    At a thought, a dark sword appeared in the Duke’s hands, a sword that gleamed like silver yet was black as pitch.
    “Step forward and kneel before me.”
    Traveller knelt. He felt his hands trembling. The Duke of dreams touched his head and each of his shoulders with the blade.
    “Understand this,” the Duke intoned, “never before have I touched a dreamer with the sword of night and never before have I offered this blade to another. You are to be the first of the knights of the Dreamscape. No longer shall your name be Traveller, but Sir Gallant the Firmhearted, for you shall stand fast in the face of great peril. Now arise, Sir Gallant, and take your sword.”
    Sir Gallant stood a little shakily, overwhelmed. Yet when he grasped the hilt of the sword of night a thrill touched his heart, and he was no longer afraid. Concentrating his mind, chainmail and breastplate formed around him; gauntlets and greaves encased arms and legs. With another thought, a teardrop shield appeared in his left hand.
    “My Duke, I shall answer your call. I shall not fail you. Or at least, I will try.”
    “I know you will. Leave your shield dark for now - your heraldry shall be decided on your triumphant return.”
    Sir Gallant bowed low as a steel helmet formed around his brown curls.
    “Wish me luck, my Duke.”
    “Luck?” he laughed loudly. “This is the Dreamscape, Sir Gallant, you make your own luck.”

*  *  *

    Sir Gallant’s journey to the growing darkness was swift, with just a single waking. He sat astride Smoke, looking down at the cloud from a hill nearby. From his vantage point Sir Gallant had thought he would be able to discover the cloud’s extent but the black had swollen so much that it choked his whole field of vision. There was only a roiling mass flowing across the land, devouring all that could not flee before it.
    Now that he could see the darkness a tremor ran through him. The incomprehensible vastness of it! What could he do against such a power? Sir Gallant looked at his gauntleted hands, the sword of night in its scabbard. How had it come to this? He was no hero. He was a poor charade, a sham.
    Sensing his unease, Smoke paced and snorted. Sir Gallant could feel her desire to flee, to turn and race across hill and field. He felt the same urge at the back of his throat and the pit of his stomach.
    At that moment, his thoughts were broken by a sudden squeaking sound, shrill and small. Startled, Sir Gallant looked about the grass, searching for the origin of the noise. When he saw nothing, he dismounted, curiosity overwhelming all other instincts. What could it have been? He couldn’t see anything, only grass. Removing his helmet, Sir Gallant knelt down and began to search on hands and knees. What was it?
    Then he found his answer, as he came nose to nose with a tiny rodent, huddling in the long grass, trembling all over. Sir Gallant smiled and looked at the strange creature. It looked a little like the rats he remembered from the Waking World but was much smaller, barely a finger long, with a furry tail.
    “What have we here?” he said to himself.
    “Don’t eat me.”
    “What?” Sir Gallant nearly fell over in surprise - no animal in the Dreamscape could talk. “You can speak?”
    “Please, don’t eat me.”
    “I’m not going to eat you,” he replied in what he hoped was a soothing manner. “What kind of creature are you?”
    “Just a poor dormouse,” the dormouse replied in its high-pitched squeak. “What kind of creature are you?”
    “Well, I am a man. My name is Sir Gallant and I am on a quest.”
    “Are you sure you won’t eat me?” the dormouse trembled.
    “Quite sure. I don’t eat animals, certainly not ones that can talk.”
    The dormouse looked certain he would still be eaten at any moment - his small eyes were wide with fear. Sir Gallant tried to change the subject.
    “How can you talk? Are you under some enchantment?”
    “I don’t know. How come you can talk?”
    Sir Gallant laughed. “You’ve got me there, my little friend, but I’m afraid that I cannot sit here chatting forever. I must venture into the darkness that lies across the field.”
    “No! Don’t go in there! You mustn’t!”
    “But I must. It is my duty - I must discover the source if the Dreamscape is to be saved.”
    “Don’t go! You will never come out. Never! Run away, far away from here.”
    “That I cannot do. I must face this darkness.”
    Sir Gallant straightened up and replaced his helmet.
    “I go in because I must. If I do not, the darkness will spread until there is no light. Nothing will remain - where could I flee then?”
    The dormouse was silent for a few moments. Its shaking had subsided and it seemed to have regained some form of composure. Sir Gallant turned back to Smoke, patted her neck and leapt into the saddle.
    “Well, it has been my pleasure, little dormouse, but now I must go.”
    “Wait! Take me with you.”
    “Take you with me? I am going into the heart of the shadow. A moment ago you told me that I should never return. Why do you wish to accompany me?”
    “Please, don’t leave me alone.”
    “Well, if you’re sure, I would be glad of the company. Come, you can ride on my shoulder.”
    And with a grateful squeak, the dormouse did just that. He leapt up and nestled into his neck. Sir Gallant could feel the small creature’s rapid heart beat through its soft fur. He set aside his wonder at his marvelous new friend and set his mind on the task at hand.
    Spurring Smoke to full gallop, Sir Gallant charged headlong towards the oncoming miasma - if he was to die, it would be a glorious death. The shadow rapidly expanded to meet him - tendrils of decay seemed to reach out, grasping, clutching at the air as he hurtled towards it. This is it then, he thought, took a deep breath and urged Smoke into the darkness.
    The dormouse squealed in terror - Sir Gallant choked his own scream in his throat.
And then they crossed the threshold.
    Utter blackness enveloped them. Sir Gallant could not see Smoke, nor his hand before his face - only vague shapes in the darkness that seemed to leap out to grab him. Tiny hands seemed to tear at his armour, pulling at the heavy chainmail he wore, clawing at his helmet, reaching for his eyes. He heard Smoke scream as if from a great distance, muffled by the blackness that sucked everything from the air. Sir Gallant tried to reassure his steed, reaching out to stroke her neck but he could not find her. They rode at great pace but he could not feel Smoke beneath his hands!
    “We should not have come,” came a high-pitched voice in his ear. “Run! run!”
    “I cannot!” Sir Gallant shouted, and felt the darkness press into his opened mouth, swallowing his words. It poured down his throat, thick and oily. He fought for breath. Suddenly, Smoke reared up, bucked and threw Sir Gallant from the saddle. Her screams were lost in the darkness.