Threnody: Closest to Heaven – Chapter 6

November 20, 2010 at 12:40 pm (Threnody: Closest to Heaven)

– CHAPTER SIX –

I was finally completely off the benzodiazepine on Sunday – and I knew without doubt that I would be discharged when Professor Stroyd did her ward round on Monday morning. I felt as if I had been slumbering for a very long time and had finally awakened properly – everything around me was both too slow with almost painful detail to the least thing, and too fast with an almost furious pace that somehow reminded me of the wind tearing leaves out of autumn trees.

Something about me changed, became more myself. There were a million huge fears within me – each of these individual gaping chasms that threatened to swallow me whole and drown me in a darkness from which I could never escape. I struggled to avoid those, to steer clear of those things that terrified me at the back of my mind. I focused instead on the hope that had sparked at Professor Stroyd’s admittance that my memories could come back to me. I reasoned with myself that when I woke up, I hadn’t even known my name. Now, I knew a lot more. Given there were still gaps – but considering that up till now I had been on anxiolytics…

I sat on the painted chair in my room, feet tucked underneath me, poring over pages propped on my knee, and applied pen to paper once more – but this time I didn’t hesitate. I wrote the words wind and sky in calligraphy and then drew a golden eagle whose talons served to illuminate the W and its wings the S at the start of the words. It took a considerable while, because the eagle filled the A4 page completely, wings stretched so that the tips pointed upwards to the sky. I slowly sketched in feathers and eyes, and then set to work shading meticulously with the cheap biro pen.

It was good occupation for my hands while my mind pondered over everything I would do once I returned home – every single alleyway of investigation available to me. I had in my purse only a debit card with my name on it, a few banknotes and coins. There was nothing more – not that I expected to gain much information from it. No, instead, I wondered why I hadn’t brought my phone with me – surely that was not the sort of thing one left behind while going to hospital? It felt ominous to me, but this was one of those things that I strove to ignore.

Pen stroke by stroke, feather by feather, the eagle came to life. Depending on how one looked at it, it could be seen as either breaking away from the letters, or being innate with them. Somewhere in my past, I had learned to draw eagles, anatomically precise, that piercing expression as familiar to me as the face that looked back at me when I faced a mirror. But what gave me the greatest pleasure of all was the calligraphy – if I had had more of an inkling what to write, I could have covered pages in rows of neat and elegant fraktur. There was nothing as beautiful as blackletter calligraphy.

_____

I was a knight to the court in a mainland European country that no longer existed – the name of it hovered on the tip of my tongue but would not quite come out. I was one of thirteen. Our role was to make sure that the king was safe and to see to his orders. This included anything from acting almost as a servant – a special one that was skilled in the arts of defence and had the legal liberty to kill if needed – to carrying out missions that bordered on espionage.

I was the thirteenth; not the youngest, but we each had numbers, and mine was thirteen. Something told me that I had dreamt myself in this place, in this role, more than one time before, and that this was as familiar to me as what others called ‘real life’. The town built on a hill, with the castle crowning at the top, main hall and citadel surrounded by a fortified wall that enclosed parts of the town and huge courtyards, was home to me. The stone used in the buildings was yellow in tone, reminiscent of gold when the setting sun cast its rays upon the town. It was a beautiful place, worthy of a dream, but it contained reality – it had poverty, disease and grief alongside wealth, prosperity and perfection.

Four of the thirteen stood on the neighbour twin to the town – this hill was not inhabitated. There was no forestland around, because of the relatively low altitude and strong wind; grassland covered most of the land, green oceans that rippled in the strong gusts of the sea breeze. The hill offered a view that would steal anybody’s breath, for miles in almost every direction, save for the south. Behind us, in the direction of the distant Alps, cliffs rose sharply up to the sky, only a couple of days’ walking distance away from the hill we were on.

‘They’ve slipped from us pretty much dozens of times, by now,’ a brown-haired boy to my left said. He was Rigel, and sat on the grass, legs crossed in front of him. He was gazing thoughtfully in the direction of the town. Rigel was the youngest of our little group of four – most people would call him a child, for he looked young despite his sixteen years, but Rigel’s physical fighting skills were quite possibly the best in the thirteen. He’d been picked from a martial school purely because of his prowess, but it was a good thing it was him they’d picked, since he was exceptionally intelligent.

‘They’re on that street,’ I said, calmly, pointing with one hand. They were specks to me, but I knew without the least doubt that I was right. The wind whipped my tunic against my legs, the heavy dark red fabric making a flap that drummed in rhythm with the beat of the wind in my ears. ‘Rue Michelas.’

It was a given that my eyesight far surpassed that of anyone else on the elite team of thirteen. That was what I had been picked for – my unusual visual abilities. I had the eyesight of an eagle, able to see very far distances keenly, and having a wide panoramic view that discomfited even those who knew me closely. I could very nearly see behind me. Being on a height, like this, delighted my senses – I felt literally as if I was above the entire world, since I could see so much of it.

Matteo laughed at the confidence with which I pointed. ‘You’re a freak of nature, girl.’ He was good with firearms – while I had the eyesight, I lacked the steadiness of grip to use the weapons that in this age recoiled violently with each shot. Matteo was my age, with the characteristic blond hair, brown eyes and freckled skin of the people of this country. He stood tall and easily in dark red brocade trimmed with gold – the colours I wore too, signs of our post.

Rigel and Jet, the fourth member of our little group, wore blue and gold… the colour of those who did not fly.

‘So,’ Jet said, softly, the wind ripping the words straight out of his mouth. ‘You simply need to read the wind currents, and set a cloth to the current that they move along to.’

It was a red and gold handkerchief that I pulled out of my pocket, and I held it between two fingers, extending my arm outwards, pointed once more in the direction of the people we were looking on. To the others around me, I suppose they wouldn’t even be specks in the far distance – tiny little pixels in a sea of similar dots that milled around the streets of the town. I closed my eyes and let go of the handkerchief, feeling the wind grab hold of it and pulling it away instantly. It was no longer there when I opened my eyes right away.

There was silence around me, save for the drumming of the wind in my ears and the beat of clothes against bodies as the four of us stood motionlessly in the strong gusts.

Jet, the fourth of us, was by a few years the oldest of the thirteen. A tall young man with a muscular build that would frighten away even a professional fighter, Jet was one of the king’s most trusted court members – if he survived a few more years and retired, he would probably be given a rank among the nobility. He’d worked for the king for many years, after all – years of flawless service, risking his life almost daily.

‘It will take a week,’ I said. ‘Only then will we be able to start the chase properly. They don’t even have a definite aim yet.’

Rigel laughed. ‘What is a week if we can be sure to have a proper trail, this time. At least we’ve spotted them – I am surprised they came out in broad daylight like this, especially knowing that the king has his hawks on them.’

‘His hawk,’ Matteo corrected him. Matteo pointed at me. ‘This one here. None of us has her insane eyesight.’

‘You should have something better than average, yourself,’ Rigel retorted. ‘You have been flying for, what, years, now.’

‘I always had eyesight like this,’ I said. ‘Flying doesn’t improve your eyesight, doesn’t change you in any way at all.’

Matteo sometimes joked and sometimes spoke with a bit of bitterness about it – that it seemed as if I had been born to fly. As much as I would like to protest this and assure him that this was not the case, the fact remained that I had abnormal eyesight. I took after my father, except that he had never left the town port, miles away, certainly never to go to the mountains.

‘A week.’ Jet always spoke few words – never more than needed. ‘Are you two going to the mountains in the meantime?’

‘I feel the winds better if I…’ I said, apologetically. Jet knew me too well. In truth, it was the sheer giddiness of the height we were at – I never could resist the urge to journey to the mountains if we spent too much time at the top of either of the two main hills of the country. Opening myself to the wind currents that pulled around us had further awakened that never completely asleep sixth sense inside of me – that hunger that gnawed as irascibly as a starving man’s need for food.

‘I’ve not been for a while either,’ Matteo said, simply.

We’d been absorbed in trying to catch the band I had just set a marker to. We suspected at least a gang of ten, but the possibilities were infinite – they could be much more numerous than this. They stole car parts and sold them on the black market. This was nothing new in itself and was certainly nothing that the king would set his thirteen on, but this crew targeted expensive car parts and were starting to have a stranglehold on the country’s market for some parts. The economy was never brilliant, but if this wasn’t stopped, it would quickly get out of control. They were a clever group – it seemed that they also sabotaged cars to drive up the demand for car parts.

We parted shortly after. Jet and Rigel set off in the direction of the town, doubtless to try to control damages until we were all in town and it was time to start chasing after our targets. Matteo and I turned away from the town.

We trekked towards the mountains. We called them that, but in reality, they were cliffs whose incredible heights were rarely visible from ground level, and that seemed to extend all along the south of our country. They were often shrouded in mist, grey stone that seemed to dwarf the rest of the world by its sheer immensity.

It took a little under two days of walking. Matteo and I did this often, and although the journey was purely along unpopulated grasslands, we encountered no difficulties. Sleeping out of doors was nothing out of the ordinary for us, and neither was it hard for us to snare enough food for our meals as we went along.

And then finally, one mid-morning, we were almost face to face with the mountains. This close to, one would know why nobody ever went this way; why, in fact, people chose to stay far away from them. There was an eerie loaded silence that surrounded it. Birds chirped rarely – mountain thrushes for the most of them, letting out a short burst of melody that quickly shushed, leaving echoes behind that seemed to reverberate against the stone.

Matteo and I stopped at the foot of a huge cliff, the top of which was lost to sight as it stretched upwards, and we both speculatively followed the slope of the cliff with our gazes.

‘Have you ever wondered,’ he said, eventually, ‘what it would be like if we just waited here, like this, and nothing happened?’

I reached out with a hand and brushed my fingers against the cliff – rough stone scraped under my touch and a little dust crumbled down to the ground. The rock here was not golden like that of the town; here, it was dull grey, like granite that was heavily coated in dust.

‘Do you really believe that would happen?’ I said, softly. Voices carried, here, and there was no need to talk louder. ‘Since your first day, have you ever truly wondered that?’

He laughed abruptly. ‘I didn’t think that, the first day. I was far too worried about what would happen… and if I was going to see the next sunrise. I don’t know why I didn’t just make a run back home.’

There were weird shrieks in the far distance – strange, yelping, high-pitched sounds that seemed to echo and magnify, somewhere above us, a good way away from where we were. Matteo looked upwards and peered in an effort to try to make out the sky.

‘Something always happens here, anyway,’ I pointed out.

And as if on cue, an almost ear-splitting shriek resounded around us, originating from above. It was a similar sound to the one we had previously heard, except that this one was so close that it thundered around us, deafeningly. There was a faint rumble that my ringing ears barely detected, and little stones and showers of dust rained down onto us. A shadow grew on the ground.

‘He’s here,’ Matteo said, stepping back a little, not in intimidation, but rather to allow me more space around myself.

There was no need for that, of course.

With a crash that shook the ground and brought more dust down on us, something massive landed in front of us – merely feet away from me.

The best way to describe it was to state the obvious. It was a dragon, long-necked, long-tailed, spikes along its spine and on the end of its tail, and its wings, which it was now half-folding against its sides, were huge – they were easily as wide as it was long. It was a grey-green colour, and its eyes, fixed on me, were the luminescent yellow of a cat’s, with similar slit-like pupils. It made a low sound that was something between a hiss and a growl and lowered its head a little, as if to better fix me with its bright gaze.

The dragons in this world were wild, untameable, and did not breathe fire. However, they wreaked havoc on anything in their territory – and since this mountain range was known to be their home, mankind steered well clear of it. They might not have fire, but they had teeth, talons and ferocity.

For no reason that was understood… the dragons accepted some humans – those who flew. There were a few humans that the dragons allowed to ride them, but the dragons had their own rules. If one dragon decided to pick you, this was the only dragon you would ever ride, and usually, you would need to earn the dragon’s trust in some way.

Matteo’s, an umber female dragon, had subjected him to the usual trial of hunger – abandoning him in the middle of the rocky cliffs, far isolated from civilisation and any means of returning home. He had survived and found his way back to her, despite her bristling angrily at him, and hadn’t backed down. It had been a process that lasted days, but eventually Matteo won the respect of his dragon.

As I stepped forward slowly but eagerly towards ‘my’ own dragon, I couldn’t help recall my own trial. The grey-green dragon shifted a little, and the sun slanted faintly through the dust-laden air to glisten faintly off his side, giving him a richer green hue. He was called something like Jade in their language – I don’t know how it is, but when you had been with them for a while, they managed to communicate simple things to you. You never saw more than your own dragon – you might see others in flight, but you never interacted with them.

This was the reason why Matteo stayed clear of Jade. Jade was possibly one of the most intimidating dragons I had known of – he always straightened up to his full height (which was considerable, given that he was a male) and puffed himself out so that he looked even huger, and would often snarl or growl or even skitter and half-pounce.

I was used to it. What I saw when Jade came for me was the gleam of acknowledgement in his eyes – there was something there that told me that he wasn’t going to harm me and that, in fact, he was eager to be off and fly.

I left Matteo behind and walked up to Jade, steadfastly, having to physically rein myself in not to run over to him so I could take to the skies sooner. Jade was so immense that I could not climb on him easily – while he skittered about and lowered himself a little closer to the ground on one side so that I could hoist myself up to the attachment of his wing to his flank, I looked for handholds and footholds that wouldn’t irritate him.

And then I was on his back, just where the two wings joined the body, and nestled myself carefully between two spikes – his spine was lined with blunt but quite big spikes.

He barely waited for me to be seated there before there was a huge crack of wings in air and an immense jolt, and then the wind rushed past my skin and the world lurched, as we took to the sky with one massive beat of Jade’s wings.

A dragon felt unlike anything else on earth. They were reptiles but were warm to the touch, and smooth but not slippery – it was almost like touching skin, in a way, save that it felt a lot thicker and rather scaly. When Jade was shedding, I invariably ended up with scales all over me.

The advantage of being rider on such a powerful dragon was that we were high up in the sky within a few seconds, overtaking the mists and dust clouds, trailing along some of the cliffs at a giddying speed before Jade decided to aim upwards again, and with another massive flap of wings, we were off to even higher altitudes.

Jade had an awareness that rising too sharply in altitudes would make me pass out, hence why he never rose straight to the top in one go, but rather took it in spurts which, although far too close in between for a normal person to accommodate themselves to the altitude changes, were sufficient for myself to cope. I was used to high altitudes by now, having flown many, many times. Jade was as familiar to myself as my own two legs were.

The rise towards the sun was exhilarating. The air put a powerful pressure on my face, but I made myself smaller so that I provided less resistance and therefore could still breathe during these ‘explosions’ of acceleration that Jade often had.

There were a few basic abilities anyone had to have, to be able to fly on a dragon. Good balance was probably the most essential one. Dragons would not allow any sort of tether – in fact, I think such a move would lose the rider all respect from his dragon – or bridle or rope of any kind attached to them. Some riders sat closer to the start of their dragon’s neck, but this was not a good idea with Jade, who accelerated in such sudden, violent bursts – dragons used their necks a lot when they made efforts, and Jade’s was always whipping about. Trying to hold on to that would be suicide. Perched as I was between spikes… I had a bigger one behind me that reached halfway up my back and supported me as the back of a seat would. That said, though, most of my time on Jade was spent leaning forwards, to minimise the surface area I presented to the wind, and to simply balance better. The spike in front of me was lower, reaching to the height of my navel. I had my hands on it most of the time to make sure I had something to hold on to at the start of Jade’s sudden accelerations in case I wasn’t prepared for the jerk forward.

But other than that, I relied completely on my balance. Jade often spinned when he flew, or flipped over, and in those instances, it was down to how well I gripped his flanks with my legs – not an easy thing considering that he was one scaly fellow.

That might well be what constituted the greater thrill in flying, apart from the sheer delight of the height and colours and the wind.

Jade was using his tail and neck now to give himself more power in each strong flap of the wings, and before long, we had attained the height he wanted: we were above the mountains. Wings stretching out to full span, he abruptly stopped shooting upwards and instead settled into smoothly hovering.

It allowed me to catch my breath – a hard task, however, given the almost impossible, breath-robbing beauty of the view I had. The land stretched out for as far as I could see – to my left was our town, and it was so far down that it didn’t even seem to be on a hill. Further to its west was the sea: deep blue, greener in some places, greyer in others, but always with tiny little ripples visible from even that height. It was dotted here and there by ships, little white specks in a massive blue vista. The mountains were the closest thing to us, their jagged peaks only a short dive away below us. I had been here many times before, but it never failed to fascinate me to see the dragons that populated the mountains – there were many of them, some in valleys between the mountains, some on the peaks, and the mountain flanks themselves were like huge chunks of what the French called fromage de gruyere – blocks of cheese full of holes and tunnels where the dragons had carved their dens into the very mountain.

And in the middle of it was something that all those who flew kept secret to themselves – it had occurred to me that most did not fly this high and therefore did not even know what existed there at the heart of the mountain range: an active crater. At the moment it was somewhat restive, with a slate-grey layer of dried ash on top of what was probably hot molten rock. A volcanic crater, which was probably which the dragons enjoyed this mountain range so much – it had its own heater.

Dragons enjoyed slumbering in warm places.

And above ultramarine sea, green land and grey mountain, the sky curved all around us, vast, azure blue, initially almost blinding with its brilliance. There were no clouds today – the sun was a golden, burning globe to my right, and as Jade swooped and hovered, to my back. Dragons speckled the sky around us, but there were relatively few of them in the air. None had riders – there was a small enough number of us that we almost never saw other humans while riding.

It’s impossible to describe what flying is like. It was powerful, insane, exhilarating and devastatingly beautiful. I leaned forwards a little, eased my position and breathed in deeply, heart still racing from our mad ascent. Jade made no sound, but silently floated on air currents of his choice.

Jade’s test of me had not been what Matteo’s dragon had subjected him to. Jade’s nature was far more impulsive, sudden, impatient… Jade was the kind of dragon that was quick to anger and, had he been human, would have been prone to sudden violent rages. He did not have the patience to test a rider for days, possibly weeks, when such a thing could be done quickly.

Jade’s trial had been a lot simpler. He flew me to this altitude then threw me off his back.

It was an uncomplicated task for a dragon to throw a rider off, no matter how experienced the rider. I had been completely inexperienced, on my first flight, and even aware that my dragon would test me soon… I was thrown off easily.

Imagine falling from such a height that you seem to be floating in empty air instead of actually falling. Blues and greens and greys and whites whirl crazily around you, and the wind has you in its grip, so powerful it feels alive in its own right. You know you are going to die, without the least doubt.

It was worth this price.

For me, the flight of a few minutes was worth this. Even though I was in a dream and could wake myself up… the overwhelming adrenaline that pumped through me as I free-fell through the atmosphere was such that I had no wish to waken myself.

I closed my eyes, freed. This fall through the skies, this fall through the atmosphere, crashing slowly, at breakneck speed, to the ground – one could not fight such a thing. I gave myself in to it completely, relinquishing all struggle. My senses were overwhelmed by the wind that beat me from every direction – it was so powerful that I wondered whether hitting the ground could possibly crush me any more than this.

As my eyes closed, my body attuned itself to its turbulent surroundings – a swimmer’s body, trained in the water from birth; except that this time I was in an ocean even more familiar to me than the lagoon of my hometown in the waking life. Swimming, I had been taught since I was born, but flying… I was born for it. Unconsciously, I flipped myself over so that my back was to the wind, protecting my face, allowing me to breathe and slowly open my eyes.

Far above me was a speck I recognised dimly through my resignation to the inevitability of death: the grey-green dragon, sinuously circling in the skies above me, watching me free-fall to the ground.

I should have felt bitterness, fear, anger, maybe, but I simply felt gratitude. How many people could claim to have flown to the very top of the world on the back of a dragon, tasting the air of that altitude on their skin?

Jade dove and snagged hold of me close to the ground. The jolt was painful and I heard myself scream – a sound echoed by the dragon that clenched me in its talons as it rose to the skies again, except that Jade’s shriek was harsh and vengeful in intonation.

He set me down on a large crag in the mountain-side, and perched not far from me, on the edge, glowing yellow eyes fixed unblinkingly on mine, majestically poised.

It was only then that I realised I must have passed his test. Jade wanted a human that could accept anything at all, even death, for the ability of flight. With time I would come to learn that this was the very nature of dragons. Not all were as reckless as Jade, but one and all, they lived for the flight, for the skies, for the fury of freedom in the atmosphere.

This was how Jade had tested me; this was how I had started my relationship with the dragon that I spent entire days with, isolated up in the skies and in the mountain.

I stayed with him for four days, this time. Jade had a soft spot for slightly burnt perch – he fished, and I cooked. He would instantly swallow more than half what he fished, but would waddle back to a ledge where he’d leave me, and regurgitate a couple of fish at a time, proudly, for me to put over a fire that was hard to maintain with already charred wood – which was the best we could get in the mountains. Jade would chew on the burnt fish slowly, eyes lazily half-closed, lids closing from the lower lid instead of the upper. We flew and ate and flew and slept – a life as primal and free as only a dragon could have.

At the end of the four days, he dropped me off on the hill where the four of us, the king’s elite, had initially parted. It was a measure of Jade’s regard for me that he landed in a place so far away from the mountains of the dragons – although I suspected that part of it was due to him realising that if he didn’t do this, then I would leave earlier, which would mean no more slightly charred perch at his disposal.

The force of the air from him taking off, when he left, was so strong that it knocked me off my feet. Within seconds, the speeding bullet that he was had become a mere speck in the distance, and soon, he was swallowed up by the mysterious mist that always surrounded the mountains. I sighed, and set off in the direction of the town, where it would be time to properly set to hounding out our targets.

_____

When I woke up in the morning, it was the flying that I remembered. I lay there in my bed for a long time, unseeingly gazing up at the ceiling, trying to hold on the memories of flying before they left me. Flying, flying, flying – so high, so much azure around… How I wanted, desperately, to live in that life instead, so I could fly. It was not until at least half an hour later that I realised my face was wet with tears and my pillow was starting to get soaked, too.

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