With her heart beating frantically in her chest, Taïga sits up straight in her bed. A little disoriented, she looks around her dimly lit room. Vulturu. Missy’s house.
She doesn’t hesitate for long. Swinging her legs over the the edge of the bed, she runs over the landing towards her grandmother’s room.
She scrambles up onto the bed and leans over the deeply sleeping figure.
‘Please, Granny,’ she whispers, shaking her grandmother’s shoulder lightly. ‘Wake up!’
Granny grunts and turns her back towards the scared child. Taïga shakes her shoulder again with insistance. ‘Wake up!’
Granny blinks leaning on an elbow. ‘What’s the matter!?!’
‘I’m scared, Granny.’
‘Hush now… It was only a bad dream, Taïga…’ Granny mutters, but she hoists herself to a sitting position nevertheless.
‘I know… But it seemed so real. More like something I remember than a dream, actually. A souvenir,’ she adds with conviction.
‘Would you like to talk about it?’ Granny says a little reluctantly. She would like to get back to sleep, she has been strangely tired since returning from Monte Aquila.
‘I don’t know…’ Taïga curls up next to her, pushing the pillows a little.
‘You’ll feel better if you tell me about it. You’ll realize it was nothing else but a bad dream,’ Granny says sleepily, arranging a pillow behind her back and putting her right arm behind her granddaughter’s frail shoulders, pulling her a little closer.
Taïga hesitates. ‘I usually forget the bad dreams, Granny. Are you sure it’s not better if I could just stay here and finish the night with you?’
‘I won’t always be here, Taïga. You must learn to face your fears, and telling someone is a good way to take the drama out of any situation.’
Taïga nods solemnly. Granny is right. But she’ll better hurry telling her before she forgets about it all.
‘OK… I was in Monte Aquila, at mom’s place. It was bizarre… I was in your room, sleeping in your big bed. You were there, too. Sleeping deeply…’
‘I asked him what was going on. He scared me…’
‘Who scared you?’ Granny asks, stifling a yawn.
‘The Butler, James. He came barging into our room while we were sleeping.’
‘Really? Why would he do that?’
‘I don’t know. He wanted to go somewhere. Granny, I won’t be able to tell you my dream if you ask me questions all the time.’
‘If I ask you questions, it’s because I’m interested,’ Granny answers tartly. And to keep me awake, she thinks.
‘Oh. Well, first it was his behavior – he was sneaking past the bed, trying not to wake us. But I woke up anyway. Then it was his clothes.’
Granny raises an eyebrow but refrains from commenting.
‘He was dressed in old clothes, like really old – 200 years or more. And when I asked him what he was doing in our room in the middle of the night, he started whispering about him having to step through the mirror.’
‘Through the mirror?’ Granny murmurs.
‘Yes… There was a big mirror, right between the windows looking out over the sea, you know, where there was a bookcase. And it was scary, too!’
A scary mirror. Granny represses a smile. ‘How was it scary? Describe it for me,’ she says softly, resting her head against the headboard.
‘It was like… Big, really huge!’ Taïga shows the size with her hands stretched out far, turning slightly towards her grandmother. ‘Granny, if you close your eyes you can’t see how huge it was.’
Guiltily Granny blinks.
‘-and there were sculptures-’
‘What kind of sculptures?’ Granny smiles wanly, trying a feeble joke, ‘Gargoyles?’
‘No. They- Well, I don’t know what a Gargoyle is.’
‘It’s a fantastic or mythical figure, carved in stone on a cathedral to lead water away from the walls-’
‘Granny. I’m talking about a mirror, not a church. And they seemed to be in iron, but then they looked at me and flapped their wings.’
‘Griffins then? Half lion, half eagle.’
‘No, it was two dragons, with wings, and their tails were the support of the mirror. They kind of held the mirror in their… Err… Paws? Or maybe they tried to climb it,’ she adds thoughtfully.
Granny isn’t smiling anymore. Her granddaughter is giving an accurate description of the Dragon Mirror. She has heard about it, and not only good things. You need a magic seal burnt into the flesh of your hand by a powerful witch to pass through. She is not even sure she would be capable of summoning that kind of magic…
‘Go on Taïga. Tell me everything.’ she urges, suddenly aware of the importance of the dream.
‘Well… The dragons weren’t as scary as the mirror itself.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘When I looked in the mirror, I couldn’t see myself. It wasn’t a mirror at all! It was more like a… A door…’
‘The Butler told me he had to do it before it was too late, then he just stepped through. So I held my breath and followed him.’
Granny scrutinizes her face. She is too young to have lucid dreams or succeed to accomplish an astral projection. Did she really step through the Dragon Mirror? Without the protective seal? If so, how come she is still here?
‘How did it feel? To step through the mirror – how did it feel?’
‘Wow! It was bizarre, like walking through a wall made of water… You know, when you dip your hand in a bath? But vertical. And cold… Once I was through it was more…’ Taïga continues her account of the happenings but Granny just nods thoughtfully, her gaze losing itself over her granddaughter’s head.
What if it wasn’t a dream? But then again – nothing could explain the presence of her granddaughter here. The Dragon Mirror is a portal between worlds, between living and dead. Like in when you step through, you’re dead. End of story. If you weren’t protected by the magic seal, of course. But even then it was perilous.
‘Can you describe what you saw?’ she cuts off Taïga in midsentence.
‘Granny? That’s exactly what I was doing. Are you listening at all to what I’m saying?’
‘Right. Go ahead. Start from the beginning. What was your first impression?’
Taïga closes her eyes. ‘Cold. And damp. The floor planks were rough under my bare feet and the walls were of stone – like the walls you see in old movies with dungeons and such.’ She looks up at Granny to see if she gets the hinge of it.
‘There were small windows with no glass, but with bars – like a prison… And they were situated so high up they barely let in any light at all. But then again, it was night, and the moon wasn’t full, so…’ She shudders.
‘It was really creepy. I got scared and turned to jump back again, but it was impossible. I could see my reflection, but I couldn’t push my hands through it. As a matter of fact I couldn’t see anything except the room behind me. The mirror had become just a mirror again. Even the dragons seemed to be made of wood…’
Granny is waiting for Taïga to continue, so she draws her breath and carries on her story.
‘I was trying to find out how to get back again, passing my hands all over the mirror when there was a loud boom! I swirled around-’
Granny looks at her with a rapt expression.
‘-but it was only the heavy door clanging shut. A girl had come in. She was dressed like Cinderella –not the ball version, but more of the little girl sleeping in the ashes kind- and she carried a heavy wooden bucket. Now she let go of it and water was swooshing all over. She just stood there, staring at me with those bizarre eyes.’
‘Yeah, blue and green at the same time.’
‘You mean turquoise.’
‘No, Granny. I know turquoise and her eyes were blue and green. Bizarre…’
‘OK. What happened next?’
‘James called out from the corner by the bed where he was examining a map on the wall. “She can’t see you,” he said. “And she can’t hear you either.” Can you believe that, Granny? We were invisible!’
Granny nods. ‘Of course,’ she mutters.
‘It was really uncanny. She was staring right at me but she couldn’t see me.’
She shivers and Granny hugs her a little tighter.
‘Then something grim came over her and she stomped towards me. Her eyebrows were furrowed and she looked really cross. I thought she was going to hit me.’
‘But you said she couldn’t see you.’
‘She couldn’t. I stepped aside anyway, or she would surely have bumped into me… Do you think she could have walked through me, Granny?’
Granny gives it a thought, then she says, ‘You were invisible, not a ghost.’
‘Right. Good thing I moved over, then. She stopped in front of the mirror and then she did exactly the same thing as I had done. She touched the mirror like I had, staring at it in wonder.’
‘Was the setting so ancient?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Do you think the girl had never seen a mirror before?’
‘Oh, no. It was the reflection, you see. I had never seen a mirror like that neither. Her reflection was of a princess! She stood there, wearing rags, and the girl staring back at her was wearing something even fancier than in my magic chest. This was for real. I’m sure she was a princess.’
‘What makes you so sure?’
‘Her clothes, of course. Cream brocade and silk and she had jewelry in her hair. Not a crown, but like a headband-’
‘-no, more like gold flowers circling her hairdo. It looked very heavy so I guess it was gold and diamonds and stuff. And a big red stone on a silk string round her neck.’
Granny analyzes everything Taïga says, taking mental notes about the necklace and the bizarre eyes.
‘Describe the room. The things you saw,’ she urges.
‘It was big, but not very tidy. I think the girl lived there on her own, because a mother would never have left it so messy. There were even ballots of hay like in a stable!’
Granny murmurs. ‘Probably for the mattress.’
’It was even strewn on the floor, Granny.’
‘Then it was certainly straw. It helped isolating from the cold and it served as a kind of carpet.’
‘Oh.’ Taïga thinks it over. ‘The room smelled good of straw and dried lavender herbs… There were also fresh flowers.’ She closes her eyes to recall what she had seen. ‘And there was a kind of picture on the wall with a strange animal on it. It looked like a dragon, but I’m not sure. It was in the corner over- Did you know she had just about the same setup as you had in Bigwood Falls? A huge table loaded with scrolls and potions and books and jars with disgusting things in them and a kettle and a big book that I’m sure was a grimoire. The girl had pulled a chair close to stand on so she’d be able to reach up and read it.’
Granny perks up. So the girl was probably a witch. But what was James looking for? And who had sent him there?
‘… torches on the walls and a big fireplace. But the room still felt cold… There was food in large baskets, onions and apples. On the wall hung dried herbs and dead birds and a rabbit. There were also trophies from hunting bigger animals. Terrifying heads of bear and wild boar, showing off their sharp teeth. A head of a stag with huge spiky horns was mounted above the bed! I sure wouldn’t have been able to sleep with that kind of decorations…’ Her grandmother doesn’t say anything so she continues, ‘I didn’t see any closets. I think the girl’s clothes were in one of the trunks. Not as if she had many clothes to choose from.’
‘Why do you say so?’
‘Because she looked as if she had worn the same outfit for weeks. Her knitted shawl and her dress were so worn and they looked dirty, too. But maybe it was just the murky brownish color… Anyways-’
‘Anyway,’ her grandmother corrects.
‘Anyway, her apron needed to be washed. I know that, because you could tell that it had once been white. If she had had more clothes, she would surely have washed her things more often and changed.’
Granny is surprised at her granddaughter’s logical mind. She nods.
‘… and there was armor posed haphazardly on the floor. Helmets, iron gloves, shields… Some shields hung on the walls, though, with crossed swords behind.’
‘Could you see if there was a special mark, like unicorns, on the shields?’
‘No… There were carvings, like Viking or Celtic drawings… But I think the girls dress had unicorns on it.’ Taïga frowns, trying to recall the details of the girl’s outfit. ‘It was ivory with orange animals. I think it was unicorns.’ Her eyes pop open. ‘The princess version, of course. The beggar version was far from fancy. I think the dress had been cut out of the same material you make sacks of!’
‘But you’re not sure?’
Taïga grimaces. ‘No, it was probably some kind of medieval version of Target stuff.’
‘Goodness, Taïga. Did your mother put this kind of thinking into your head? And I was talking about the unicorns.’
‘Sorry… I’m sure it was unicorns, Granny.’ She doesn’t like when Granny is annoyed with her so she hurries to continue her description of the room.
‘There was also a rickety desk with a funny chair with drawers in it. There were lots of books and scrolls everywhere. James was very interested but I don’t think he could read them – I think they were written by hand in a very strange language…’
‘Maybe… But the letters were like twigs!’
Granny frowns. Futhark? ‘Would you recognize the writing if I showed you?’
‘Yeah. Probably.’ Taïga continues. ‘And there was an old map on the wall, probably the map of the country.’
‘Could you reproduce it?’
‘I could always try. But I don’t think it was accurate, it seemed very old…’
‘James called me over. He was on his knees in a corner, looking at a peacock feather in a vase. He said it was a truly strange finding in a medieval castle and asked me to help him search for even stranger things. I wondered what we were looking for, and he said I would know when I found it. Typically grown-ups… Sorry, Granny!’
‘It’s all right. Just go ahead. Did you find it?’
‘I thought I did. I climbed up on a hay bale and found an egg in a basket. But the butler said we weren’t on an Easter expedition here. So I let it be. But I’m sure he would have reconsidered if he had taken the time to check it out himself,’ she says mysteriously.
Granny raises her eyebrows.
‘… because I’m sure it was a dragon egg! It was huge and it was marbled in gold and when I touched it, it became all warm. I hugged it and told it to be patient. Butlers aren’t no dragon experts, after all.’
‘That was rude, Taïga.’
Taïga gives her grandmother a meaningful look. ‘He was all excited over a feather from the butt of a peacock when there was a dragon egg just behind his back.’
Granny doesn’t have any arguments to that. ‘Mind your language, young lady.’
Taïga doesn’t say anything. Since when is butt a bad word? She thinks Granny is even more uptight about things now than before they went to Italy…
‘So I left the egg and continued exploring. And guess what? I found a secret room behind an old threadbare carpet!’
‘Under a carpet,’ Granny corrects.
‘No, it was actually behind it. It hung on the wall, you see. I leaned against it and almost tumbled in. I pulled the corner aside and peeked in but it was too dark to see anything.’
She doesn’t mention the sensation of something pulling her forward, tugging at her, inviting her into the dark space.
‘Then I had to step inside, because the girl arrived. I had not heard her coming because she was barefoot. She brushed past me, holding a candle.’
The flickering light had lit up the narrow space. The wall was covered in dry herbs and whole branches with last season’s leaves still attached to them. A horrible mask was lodged in the middle and seemed to stare right at Taïga, its empty eyes dark hollows. She had recognized it immediately.
‘It was the same mask as on the wall in the headmaster’s dining room.’*
‘What mask?’ Granny asks and Taïga realizes she must have spoken out loud.
‘Remember the Boxing Day dinner party at the headmaster’s? There was a hideous dragon mask over the fireplace.’ She remembers how forbidding Leonardo had seemed, sitting right in its shadow. ‘But you sat with your back to it, so maybe you didn’t notice…’
Granny frowns. There had been a landscape on the wall. She remembers it quite well as it was a very well made copy of a birch grove painted by Romanian artist Stefan Luchian.
Taïga doesn’t wait for her to comment on the mask. ‘She put the candle on a wooden pedestal with a book on it. Then she rummaged around in a box on the floor and came up with a blue wand.’
‘A blue wand?’ Granny repeats questioningly.
‘Yeah! Just like the one mom hid before leaving. The one I found.’
‘I see… And what about the book?’
‘It was old. Anyway it looked terribly old. I was on my way to have a closer look when the girl picked it up. She blew out the candle and I followed her back into the major room again.’
The girl had grabbed a sheepskin and a little pillow from her bed and dumped them on the floor in front of the fireplace. At first she had lied down on her back, but the book was way too heavy, so she had rolled over onto her stomach and put the blue wand on the pillow instead. Taïga was curious about the book, feeling almost compelled to walk over and try to read over the girl’s shoulder.
Meanwhile, James had approached the congealing content of a big iron kettle next to the fire. The smell was nauseous, making his eyes water and burn. Irritated, he held his nose and shied away. Onion soup with turnips. A lot of turnips. Possibly even leek and garlic.
Exasperated at not yet having found anything of value, he got back on his feet and urged Taïga to stop lingering. He made a point out of her resuming the research of whatever they were looking for.
Firmly decided to check if he hadn’t missed out on something on the desk, he stomped back through the room, putting as much distance between himself and the awful smell he possibly could. Taïga had with regret thrown a last glance at the book and gone straight over to the large trunks lining the wall.
‘I opened the heavy lid of one of the trunks and peeked inside. There were lots of rags and some pretty strange things, all piled haphazardly inside as it they had been thrown in. Suddenly James called out and scared me so I bumped my head…’
She touches the back of her head and true enough, there is a slight bump.
‘He was really upset about me opening the lid. He scared me a bit with his yelling and I felt really stupid. Even if I was invisible, the trunk wasn’t, so it was as if it was opening all on its own. I’m sure she didn’t notice, though. She was way too concentrated on the mirror and her spell book.’
‘Did you find what you were looking for?’ Granny asks absentmindedly.
If her analyze of what her granddaughter is telling is accurate, the spell book could be Lady Ravendancer’s. But what about the girl? Who was she? Lady Ravendancer had had a daughter. Could it be the girl dressed like a beggar? After what Taïga has described, it seemed like the girl lived alone… So, could the girl be Lady Ravendancer herself?
It takes a few seconds for Granny to realize what question Taïga just answered. ‘Err… Why didn’t you?’
‘James had told me to sit down and wait for him to finish searching, so that’s what I did. I sat a few feet across from the girl and watched her look for the right spell.’
‘Did she say something?’
‘To me? No… I didn’t say anything either. It was a strange feeling. She looked at me, but at the same time she looked through me!’ Taïga shudders as she remembers the words the girl sang over and over again, turning the pages.
Black Lady, Black Lady, answer me
Will the man with the axe lose his queen?
To the laughing boy?
To a jack or a roy?
Black Lady, Black Lady, don’t lie to me
‘What about James? Did he find anything?’
‘No, he didn’t have the time.’
‘Why? What happened?’
‘The girl stood up and pointed the blue wand directly at the mirror, singsonging in latin. Anyways, the Butler was screaming at me to hurry! She had opened the portal.’
‘-and that means you both had to go through fast because if it closed, the magic symbol on his palm could not have helped you unlock it once more.’
‘Yeah. I guessed it was something like that. James was really in a panic.’
She snuggles closer to her grandmother.
‘He ran like a madman. He jumped through, his hand with the pentagram directed at the wand as if it could deflect the magic from it. I didn’t want to find out what would happen on my end of the wand so I scrambled backwards to avoid being touched by the return flow of magic.
The girl really freaked me out, Granny. She was staring at the mirror and mumbling and the wand was glowing-’
‘It’s funny… I don’t remember…’
‘Try to recall – was it reddish or greenish?’
Taïga closes her eyes and tries hard to visualize the scene. ‘Neither… It was white!’
Granny lets out sigh of relief. ‘Are you sure? It was white?’
‘Absolutely positive, Granny. Why is it so important?’
‘White is good magic, Taïga!’
‘Oh… Yeah, of course.’
‘Anyways, I knew I had to get out from there, or wake up. Jumping through the mirror seemed like the best option as I could see the butler on the floor of our room in Monte Aquila. So I ran for it and prepared to jump through… That’s when she called out!’
‘You heard her?’
‘Of course I did,’ Taïga says with a hint of reproach.
Granny shakes her head as if to clear her thoughts. ‘I mean – what did she say?’
‘She said: “Attends! Qui es-tu?” I held on to the rim of the mirror. I just knew I couldn’t leave her… It was awful, like my body was torn apart…’
‘But I couldn’t hold on anymore, so I had to leave her behind. I could still see her on the other side of the mirror, but I don’t think she could see me… It was awful, Granny! It felt like… Dying! Like she was me somehow, and… I didn’t want to leave her! It was such a horrible dream! I don’t want to sleep ever again! What if the mirror is back? What if I go through it and can’t get back home again?’
Granny doesn’t know what to answer. She is also afraid the mirror will be back, but she can’t very well say that to her granddaughter. She just kisses her forehead and mumbles soothingly, ‘Don’t be afraid. We’ll find a solution to all this. Try to go to sleep now.’
‘So I can I sleep here tonight?’
Absent-mindedly, Granny picks up Miezul Nopţii. ‘Of course, if it makes you feel better…’
She looks out the window at the dark, ominous mountains, caressing the cat.
‘Oh, and Granny! I almost forgot about the cards.’
Granny snaps to attention, and grabs Taïga’s arm. ‘What cards? Tell me! What cards?’
‘Aie! You hurt me, Granny!’
Granny lets go of her, ashamed of her violent reaction. ‘I’m sorry Taiga… But tell me about the cards. Was it an unopened deck of cards? Where they scattered?’ She swallows. ‘Or was it a house of cards?’
Taïga rubs her arm and nods. ‘A house, I guess.’
‘It was a kind of wall made of triangles.’
So a house it was. The future… Granny continues. ‘Four levels, a distinct color for each level?’
Taïga just nods.
‘Do you remember the order?’
‘I think so… Diamonds, Spades –no, the black clover-’
‘If you say so. Then Spades. Hearts at the top.’
Granny stares into space… Then she remembers her scared granddaughter, stroking Taïga’s hair. ‘Do you feel better?’
‘I guess so…’
‘Go to sleep now, I’ll see you in the morning…’
‘Where are you going? Please, hold me, Granny.’
Granny itches to consult her grimoires, but lies down next to her granddaughter, thoughts racing through her head. It wasn’t a dream… and if what she told me now is true… The Spellbook is calling out to her. Or Lady Ravendancer is… Oh, my. The cards. Heart at the top, that means that love will vanquish. But before getting there she’ll have to go through fortune and luck, death and finally love. It’s the death part that worries me…
As soon as the little girl’s respiration comes regularly, she carefully dislodges her arm from under Taïga’s head.
She fiddles around for her slippers, grabbing her robe and tying it firmly around her waist.
She leans against the desk, scanning the documents she had succeeded in rescuing from the fire. She knows the answer is somewhere in the old tomes, but where to start? She has to contact Shasta and ask her about the butler and who sent him through the Dragon Mirror portal. Could it have been Leonardo? Opening such a gateway is never without risk…
Oh, Taïga. How can I protect you? By sending you away? Far from all the dangers and temptations… I just hope it will be enough!
Taïga is visiting the princess girl again that night, but not through the mirror. In a dream she is the young witch in the tower room…
Part I – End of Chapter 40
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