by Damien McKeating
THE waterfall burst out of the side of the cliff, a tumbling ocean gushing out of a mass of brown stone and thick, green vegetation. Droplets of water caught the moonlight and cascaded down onto the forest canopy like diamonds dropped from the pocket of a giant.
‘Yeah!’ the girl’s cry pierced the water’s roar as her raft burst out of the cliff, riding the waterfall into the air.
The raft dived in a graceful arc, tilting its riders to face the churning water below them.
The girl stared down, eyes wide, mouth smiling, holding on with one hand and the other reaching up towards the sky, fingers stretched.
Next to her a badger, dressed in a motley of metal and cloth armour, rose to her feet and grabbed hold of the girl. ‘Princess Maya,’ the badger called, ‘let go.’
Maya and her badger bodyguard let go of the raft and behind them rose a fluttering of black feathers. A spindly, long legged bird, wearing a once-white tie, took to the sky, clutching each of them in its feet.
‘Gemma, look!’ Maya watched the raft disappear into the water and the badger twisted in time to see it smash on the rocks and rapids. ‘Clatterbeak, over there!’
Maya clung on with one hand and pointed, the movement setting Clatterbeak into a wobbling descent. He swung them towards a ledge leading down into the forest and they landed with a tumble.
Gemma rolled to her feet and drew a sword from a sheath on her back. Clatterbeak sat in the dirt and fanned at his tie with his wings, sending up wafts of dust but failing to clean his tie.
‘We made it,’ Maya said breathlessly. Her chestnut hair was long and tangled, her skin patched with dirt and cuts. She wore a tattered pink gown over leggings and a long sleeved t-shirt. She jumped and her boots thudded heavily.
‘They will still be chasing us, your majesty,’ Clatterbeak said as he jumped to his feet. ‘We will not be safe for long.’
‘Where are we?’ Gemma growled as she stared into the dark forest, sword held ready. ‘Wait… Something’s coming,’ she paused to listen, went to speak again but the forest burst apart.
Branches split and the ground shook at the beast’s approach. It burst onto the ledge in a shower of leaves and twigs. It stood proudly, head held high, antlers silhouetted against the moon.
‘Melville,’ Maya hugged the moose around its neck. Melville looked at them with wide eyes and grinned.
‘Glad you found us, old boy,’ Clatterbeak said.
‘You galumph too much,’ Gemma said. ‘Everyone will have heard us.’
Melville look chagrined but Maya ploughed on relentlessly. ‘We’ll use the stars,’ she said. ‘When you don’t know where you are you navigate with the stars.’ She looked up into the sky and the smile slipped from her face. ‘Oh.’
‘What?’ Clatterbeak looked up. ‘Oh,’ he said.
The stars hung in their canopy of night, twinkling and shining and… one disappeared. It twinkled and went out… And then another… As they watched one star after another began to go out.
‘They’re coming,’ Clatterbeak said. ‘The stars go out when dawn approaches, everyone knows that.’
‘The moss,’ Maya turned away from the sky and ran a short way into the forest. ‘Trees always grow on the north side of moss. Look,’ she pointed to a tree and the greenish growth on its southern face. ‘So west is that way. Professor Featherstone told us we’d find the centre of the universe in the west.’
She swung up onto Melville’s humped back. Gemma clambered up after her and a moment later the great moose was powering his way through the forest with Clatterbeak flying high over their heads, above the trees.
They ran and above them the stars went out.
‘The sky is getting lighter,’ Gemma said. ‘The stars will be gone soon.’
‘Faster, Melville,’ Maya whispered and the moose lowered his head and ploughed on, his tongue lolling out of his mouth.
They reached a huge clearing. In front of them a stone tower rose into the sky. Clatterbeak flew down and together they approached the tower.
Carved steps and statues led to a door of dark wood in the tower’s side. At the base of the steps was a fountain. A stone dragon lay curled in its centre, snout extended and water bubbling from its lips. Around it glittered the coins of spent wishes; the dragon’s hoard.
‘Is this it?’ Gemma frowned. ‘Is this the centre?’
‘I don’t know,’ Maya said and looked up at the tower.
Melville lapped at the fountain and snorted as the water touched his muzzle.
‘You’re here!’ a voice called from the top of the steps, ‘Oh, you’re here!’ A chicken with brown and white feathers flapped her wings and hopped down the steps in an excited flutter. ‘Princess Maya, oh, you’re here, oh foxes and weasels, what bad timing. Oh. Oh.’
‘Who are you?’
‘I’m Gladstone, I look after the tower, but, oh, oh,’ she pecked at the dirt, ‘the tower has locked itself, your majesty. No one can get in.’
Maya stood at the base of the steps and stared up at the tower of stone. ‘Is this the centre of the universe?’
‘One of them, yes,’ Clatterbeak said. He hopped and flew up onto a statue of a pig holding a spear. He settled on the pig’s head. ‘But I don’t know what to do if it’s locked.’
‘Don’t you have a key?’ Maya asked Gladstone.
‘There are no keys,’ Gladstone flapped around.
Melville harrumphed, unimpressed.
‘Princess,’ Gemma said. She drew her sword and took a step forward.
At the forest’s edge sat a dozen riders. They wore shining armour and red tabards decorated with a white sun. Their lances glinted in the growing dawn and grim visors covered their faces.
‘Sun Knights,’ Gemma growled.
Maya instinctively took a step away from them and fell on the steps. She gave a cry and rubbed her leg. Gladstone hopped forward and offered her a wing. ‘Princess,’ the chicken said, ‘you have to get up.’
‘What?’ Maya frowned at her.
‘You have to get up.’
‘No. You’re one of them,’ Maya jumped up and away from Gladstone.
‘Your majesty, please,’ Gladstone begged.
Maya looked up at the door.
‘They’re coming,’ Gemma said as the knights began to charge.
‘They’ll take you home,’ Clatterbeak wailed.
Maya set her face in a determined frown. She plunged her hand into the warm water of the fountain and grabbed one of the coins.
‘Hey,’ the dragon in the fountain complained, water bubbling out of his mouth and warbling his voice.
‘Wishes are made on stars,’ Maya said as she clutched the coin, ‘and the stars are going out. I need to take this wish with me. Come on,’ she charged up the stairs, leaping from step to step.
‘Please,’ Gladstone shouted from the fountain, ‘you have to get up!’
Maya focused on the door to the tower.
The Sun Knights charged, raising thunder and dust.
Maya clenched the wish fountain coin. ‘I wish the door was open,’ she said.
Without slowing she slammed into the door and it burst open. They all fell into the tower in a flurry of limbs, tumbling over each other as Melville pushed them in, turning his head to get his antlers through the door.
Gemma rose up and slammed the door shut. ‘That won’t hold them,’ she said.
‘The universe,’ Clatterbeak said in awe.
The tower was a vast space filled with orbs, gears, clockwork, rods and levers. Planets, sun and spheres were suspended around each other; a dance frozen in time.
‘An orrery,’ Clatterbeak said. He flapped a wing at Melville as the moose tried to lick a planet.
‘This is it,’ Maya said. ‘The secret is here.’
‘It looks broken to me,’ Gemma said as she put her shoulder to the door.
Maya reached into her pocket and pulled out a small lightbulb. The queen of the salamanders had given it to her. Inside its glass dome blue flashes of lightning crackled and danced. Maya unscrewed the metal cap of the bulb and held it up high. The lightning jumped out of it, danced across the planets and, with creaks, groans and grinds, the orrery began to turn.
‘We did it!’ Clatterbeak danced on his spindly legs.
Something boomed against the door, making it rattle in its frame. The force of it knocked Gemma over and the badger jumped up to throw herself against it again.
‘Maya,’ a powerful woman’s voice called from outside, ‘you have to get up.’
‘One more minute,’ Maya pleaded. That was all they needed. They’d made it; the secret was here among the rotating planets and the sun.
She looked at the sun. It was speckled with lights that shone around the orrery, casting the orbiting spheres in light and dark.
‘Princess,’ Clatterbeak called.
Maya looked down at herself. She was disappearing. She could see through herself, see the flagstone floor and the tower.
‘The sun,’ she said, ‘look at the sun.’
‘It’s not moving,’ Clatterbeak wailed. ‘It’s the only thing not moving.’
‘Exactly,’ Maya said and then she was gone.
She woke up to a banging on her bedroom door.
‘Maya,’ her mum called, ‘you have to get up.’
‘Mum!’ she wailed.
So far away that distance is meaningless, and so close as to be no distance at all, a curious bird, a moose and badger sat in a tower. The knights were gone. Their princess was gone.
Clatterbeak watched the orrery turn. He watched the planets rotate, saw their faces go from light to dark and back again. An idea formulated in his corvine brain.
‘Night will come again,’ Clatterbeak said, a glimmer of excitement in his voice. ‘It will come again. She’ll come back! The sun doesn’t move; we do! It’s all an illusion!’
‘What good is that?’ Gemma said. ‘She’s lost.’
Clatterbeak laughed and danced. ‘So are we! And that’s good. It’s good! Lost things can be found. Come on,’ he fluttered out of the tower.
‘Where are we going?’ Gemma asked.
‘We have to go somewhere she can find us again!’
So the curious bird, the moose and the badger stepped out of the tower and journeyed to the place where they could be found again.
But that is another story entirely.
©Damien McKeating 2016