|Scattered about on the floor around the dragon's body were the scales missing from the patches of bare stone.|
Lester was pretty certain that they had managed to fall through a skylight. Thankfully, the skylight had no actual glass in it. If it had then that could have been troublesome. Not that their landing had been particularly comfortable. They appeared to be covered in books and bits of paper.
Lester had never heard a mouse scream before. He had not expected it to sound like it did, it was far less squeaky than he had imagined it would be.
"I hate bats!" the mouse said. Lester looked over to where the tiny creature was sitting in the ruins of its pumpkin gourd. It crouched up on its hind legs to look at a picture resting against the floor. The picture was, at one and the same time, simplistic and quite horrible. It depicted a bat, wings folded, perching on top of a tree, in the background a shooting star streaked across a pitch dark sky.
There was some kind of symbolism or other arty nonsense going on, because the bat was enormous, or the tree was very small. Lester wondered if it was, in fact, a normal bat on top of a bonsai. His train of thought hit another startling realisation and was instantly derailed.
"You can talk!" he said.
The mouse swivelled its head to look at him.
"Your moustache has come loose," it said.
Lester reached up to his face to prod at the waxy false moustache he had been sporting. He had believed it appropriate during his brief and undistinguished career as a goblin trader. It had, indeed come away on the left hand side and was now hanging limply beside the right hand corner of his mouth. He grasped the offending article between his fingers and pulled it off his face. He couldn't see anywhere to put it tidy so he dropped it onto the floor.
"So, you're just going to dump it there?" the mouse asked him.
Adding to the stack of new experiences today had already thrown at him, Lester now knew what it felt like to have a rodent make him feel guilt. He picked the moustache up again and thrust it into his pocket.
"Sorry," he said. "I was... a bit confused."
"Too confused to be tidy?" the mouse asked.
"No, well, just... this is so... I mean... isn't this odd, don't you think?" Lester asked. He took a moment and got on to his feet so he could have a proper look around, and up.
They had, in fact, fallen in through a hollow skylight. They had landed to one side of a pile of books mounted on a desk. Their passage had up ended the desk and scattered the books all over the floor of the small room. Mixed up with the books were a number of loose leaf sheets of manuscript paper. Scrawly, illegible handwriting filled them all from corner to corner.
The painting of the bat was not the only work of art adorning the walls of the room. There were many strange pictures hung from the walls, there were more stacked up, some up to five deep, on the floors.
The room was not a regular shape, Lester had to count, there were nine walls. In the domed ceiling the skylight was the only window. About two and a half feet away, spitting the odd shower of blue and orange sparks, was the broomstick. The other trader had offered him the item as 'security' back in the market. Either that had been a trader's joke or Lester had the short end of that bargain.
"In the last twenty four hours," the mouse said, "my life has been turned on its head. My home, the pieces of which you may now see lying about my feet in small orange chunks, rolled down a hill. I was nearly eaten by," the mouse spared a glance at the picture, "a giant bat. I took a ride on a shooting star. I heard a silly story about a knight who was a wolf. I went inside a tent that had more stacks than apparent square footage. I met a mermaid, briefly. I felt a disturbing flutter of deja vu. To top it all I disappear from the side of my only companion in a whirl of blue and orange fire to end up here with you. I left odd behind some time around the gnome deciding it had better things to do with its time."
"Gnome?" Lester asked.
"I don't want to talk about the gnome!" the mouse tried to stamp its foot but, being a mouse, the effect was underwhelming to say the least.
"Where do you think we are?" Lester asked. There was a door in one of the walls. Lester was not keen on the idea of opening it until he was a little more certain what he might find on the other side.
"Somewhere else that isn't home," the mouse replied. "So what difference does it make?"
"Hmm," Lester said. Then, too troubled to ignore the fact any longer: "Look. I don't mean to be intrusive or show my limited life experience or anything, but... You can talk."
"So it would appear," the mouse replied.
"That's not a usual thing, for mice to talk," Lester said.
"Then I would imagine you could say that I am not a usual mouse," the mouse said. It made a little motion with its front legs that could have been a shrug. "Are you going to try the door or am I going to have to start stacking books?"
"I want to find out where we are," Lester said.
"And what better way to do that than to open the door?" the mouse asked through grated teeth. Lester was finding that he was getting used to the mouse. The longer he watched it do quite un-mouse-like things, the more accepting he was of this unbearable cuteness.
"Well, I hope there's not a tiger out there," Lester sighed. He picked his way over the fallen detritus of hardcovers to reach for the door handle.
"If there is," the mouse said. "Then we'll have to face it eventually. I would be more concerned, to be honest, if it turns out to be a broom cupboard."
Lester paused with his hand upon the handle.
"Why would you care if it's a broom cupboard?" he asked.
"Well, unless it had the decency to be a _magic_ broom cupboard," the mouse explained. "It would mean that we find ourselves trapped, until we manage to span the fifteen foot gap between the floor and the skylight."
"Oh, yes," Lester said. "I'm still not sure that's worse than a tiger."
"So, we've established that you would rather not be eaten and I would rather not starve to death. Illuminating."
"You are a very sarcastic mouse."
Lester pushed down on the door handle. The door was not locked, there was no tiger on the other side and it didn't open onto a broom cupboard.
"It's a hallway," Lester said. "A bit dingy but it doesn't look either unpleasant or dangerous."
"No alcoves or other shadowy places that might provide a hiding place for lurking assassins?" the mouse asked. "No suspicious, raised floor stones? No holes in the wall from which poison tipped darts might fire, using an ingenious compressed air system?"
"Sarcastic and paranoid," Lester said. "No, none of that, well, not that I can make out in the gloom. Besides, it's the only exit, what choice do we have? We're pretty much forced to go that way. We should probably get on with it."
"You sound just like Rachel," the mouse said. "Impossible. Come on then, pick me up, you can carry me on your shoulder, left or right, I don't mind, it's your choice."
Lester went over to the mouse and put out his hand, the mouse clambered up onto it. Lester moved the hand up to his left shoulder and the mouse jumped off his hand. Lester could feel little claws through his shirt sleeve, they were sharp but not pressing down hard.
Lester stood and went to the threshold of the doorway. He took one final chance to examine the gloomy hallway for signs of any traps before stepping forward.
"Who's Rachel?" Lester asked the mouse.
"The little girl, who left me with the mermaid," the mouse said. "I have a terrible feeling we're related."
"Oh?" Lester said. He took a step out into the hallway. "Related how? By marriage?"
The two of them remained free from attack by assassins. There were no ominous clicks, poisoned darts did not spring from the holes that weren't in the walls.
"No, blood related," the mouse said.
Confidence growing Lester took some slow and careful steps along the hallway. In the distance he could see that it turned to the right.
"I'm not trying to speak out of turn," Lester said. "But I have difficulty with the concept that the two of you might be blood kin. Just saying."
"No, that's fair enough," the mouse said. "I've been having some difficulties. with my memory. I am pretty certain I wasn't always a mouse. The clues are definitely there now I look back at it, you know: being able to talk, being called James, stuff like that." James the mouse paused, and then said: "Oh, yes, I'm James by the way, pleased to meet you."
"Lester," said Lester. "Pleased to meet you James the currently-a-mouse."
"Now that I come to think about it," James said. "I'm not sure I am pleased to meet you. You don't seem very honest and you were exploiting that poor mermaid."
"Oh, that," Lester said. "That, uh, it wasn't what it looked like. Or, maybe it was, I don't know. I think I was doing someone a favour, or maybe he was doing me a favour. I know that the mermaid needed someone to help them and... well... it was all most complicated."
"Hmm," James said. "This place is strange. The walls aren't as regular as they were, look."
James was right, the walls of the hallway had become jagged and uneven. The passageway was still broadly the same shape but now it appeared less constructed and more as if it were a natural cave tunnel. The light, such as it was, was also dimming to a point where Lester was having to feel his way along with his right hand on the wall.
Lester strained to make out any detail in the darkness. He couldn't see anything but his fingers met a wall in front of him. For a second he panicked as he felt his way along a smooth shelf of rock in front of him. Then his hand went past the point at which he believed the opposite wall should exist. He turned his head to see a dim light in the distance.
"There's a bend in the passage," Lester said. He groped his way forward and the light situation began to improve. As they got closer to the light the passage opened up into a cavern.
"I really hope this is a way out," James said.
Lester considered pointing out that building a long passageway leading to a single room would not be a profitable use of time. Further you would have to consider the sanity of someone who undertook such a project. This went double for someone who decided the room needed nine sides. Then he decided against it. The mouse was nervous and had been through a lot today already. It was probably best to just keep going forward and hope for the best.
The cavern at the end of the passage was not an exit, but it was both bright and airy. At first Lester could not make out the source of the light, he just knew there was something large shimmering in the centre of the floor. James got a good look at the shimmering object first, it was not good news:
"It's a dragon!" he squealed. His exclamation was so forceful that he almost fell off Lester's shoulder.
Following James's alert Lester went from squinting mode to scan-for-danger mode in a fraction of a second. He blinked his eyes and rubbed them, willing for the giant glowing mass of shimmering light to resolve into the shape of a dragon. His ears strained to catch the ominous whisper of a dragon breathing.
Lester's vision did adjust, slowly. The pair continued to not be eaten or roasted alive. Lester started to reach another high peak of safety on the roller coaster that his emotional state had become today. When his vision had adjusted Lester could see that James was right, the source of the light was definitely dragon shaped.
This dragon, however, was a stone carving. Lester could see parts of the enormous beast showing through its coat of shining yellow metallic scales. These scales were the source of the light. Scattered about on the floor around the dragon's body were the scales missing from the patches of bare stone. They didn't appear to have their own light, like the ones that remained attached to the dragon. They did reflect light well enough to bounce reflected images here and there around the walls of the cave.
"I think it's a statue," Lester said to James. "It's not moving, anyway."
"I'm not sure it is a statue," James said as Lester stepped closer to examine the scales. "I think I remember something."
"Like what?" Lester said stooping to pick up a scale. It was round at one end and flat at the other, the surface was a perfect mirror.
"Like something about dragons and stone and them not being dead," James said. "Did I mention I'd been having some memory problems?"
"You might have mentioned it," Lester said. He wasn't paying much attention. He had moved on from the scales to look into the dragon's eye, a great, flat reflective disc. It was slightly bowed outwards so it distorted the image of Lester's face. It made his nose look big. James, on the edge of the reflection, still perched on Lester's shoulder, looked small.
Out of the shimmering play of lights surrounding Lester's image in the eye a picture began to resolve. The face of a little girl, a different little girl to the one from the Bridgetown Market. The image slowly pulled itself together out of the shimmering sparks of colour reflected in the dragon's eye.
"What are you doing inside my mirror?" asked the little girl peevishly. "I'll have you know I'm a princess so you'd jolly well better stop being inside my mirror right now."
Lester and James exchanged a puzzled glance.
"We're not in your mirror," James said. "We're beside a dragon."
"Oh," the little girl said. "A talking mouse. Interesting. Okay, well, if there's a talking mouse then I guess you can be inside my mirror after all..." The little girl paused and looked about herself. "Um," she said, puzzled and uncertain. "What's all this shining stuff?"
In front of Lester the dragon's eye began to grow, larger and larger until he could see all of the little girl. He observed her well groomed pigtail plaits and her impossibly frilly lemon dress. He had a few moments to admire the incongruous heavy walking boots that emerged from under the lacy fringe at the bottom of the skirt.
"What are you up to?" the little girl asked, alarmed. "Stop it at once!"
Before either of them knew it they were standing opposite one another surrounded by a sparkling shower of light. Then there was movement from above. Lester focused on it, realising as he did so that he had become rather dizzy, and understood that the dragon's eye was closing.
"Oh, dear," said Lester but it was too late to do anything, even if there was anything to be done. The dragon closed its eye and the sparkling shower dimmed to a background glow.
Standing in the cave, next to the gigantic stone dragon were now Lester, James and the small frilly girl in the heavy black boots.
"You," the girl said crossly. "Are in such big trouble you don't even know how big it is!"
As it happens, she was right, but we'll find out how some other time.