He had been known to many people and by many names. Sometimes he was Aquila, the eagle of the night, whose sharp eye could scan the deepest space to find a single star. Some called him Scorpio, the warrior of the soul, whose armour no thing could graze and whose lance would pierce the darkest heart. Then at other times men had named him Merlin, as if they praised him, or if they hated him the Ray, the Shark, the Snake and all kinds of odd creatures.
Now, which of these are true and which are wrong I cannot tell but I do know that he had been both fast and strong, had crossed many a perilous path and had many a strange story to tell of himself.
All this is long past. For when I met this man, he was old. He had for many years no calling but that of rest and would expend no more energies than those required for pleasant conversation and light entertainment with the people of the hilltop community in which we lived.
The higher ground to the south-west of the town was well suited to his story telling. There was often a cooling breeze and its closeness to the houses made it an easy place for the children to idle.
The civic guardians were not so well informed as to provide a park there but one fortunate little oak had found the shallow soil beneficial and had spread itself far and wide.
The seasons then were long and the summer still warm, so the old eagle was in the habit of perching himself on a boulder beneath this tree and relating his memories to a small audience of inquisitive children and indolent youths. Occasionally, he would make a joke over the fact that his perch had become so lowly and afterwards be silent for so long that the listeners would disperse.
So it was that I was able to join this local company and hear the master speak at first hand. His voice was soft, as you might guess it had been since his young days, when he was a man of action rather than words. It was soft in tone but now soft with feeling too, as a good old man's will be.
On some days his stories were about witches and demons; on others about wars between the planets. Then there were stories about perfect loves and lovers, about dying for lost causes and about victories over impossible odds.
One afternoon, I remember he asked us if we had ever heard of the Silver Planet. His complexion turned an icy-blue as he said the words and then flushed rosily as he smiled, waiting for an answer. Someone at the back of the group called out 'No!' For in those days, we did not understand that such things as distant planets and other worlds really exist, much as we tried.
"Then I'll begin!" said the old man gleefully.
He surveyed his audience sternly for a moment and waited for quiet attention from them.
"It happened that I was trapped in a dark and frightful place one time. I cannot tell you where it is because I don't even remember how I ever got there. All I know is that it must be millions of miles from here, somewhere in space, and that you must have faith and believe what I say is true!"
He winked knowingly at us. Some of the older boys were cheeky enough to chuckle. Yet it seemed as if the atmosphere around us changed. As he commenced his story, the murky night closed in. He was grappling with some cosmic riddle and unravelling its twisting vapours.
A wind whipt up, carrying with it all the dust and grit he needed to tell his tale.
Faltering a little, he spoke again,
"This place, as I said, w-was dark and scarey – and it was deep underground. For many days, I had been crawling and groping and clambering through a series of tunnels that led in all directions – up, down and from side to side. I was nearly at my wit's end.
I was a strong young man then and I was no fool, yet my muscles became weak and filled with pain. I could find no way to solve the puzzle of that vile maze.
It seemed the passages had some signs of human construction. The concentric shape of the tunnels, the rocks pieced together in an angular manner. All this seemed to suggest that the maze had been built. Though I could find no exit.
The underground routes were hot and dry – and the air was very thin in them. So the harder I strove to discover the way out, the more frequently I had to stop and regain my breath. Always, I would end up in the spot I'd been in before. At that point, I would break down and sob, for fear of the eternal half-light!"
The eagle paused. On using this unusual phrase, he had spied a few doubting faces. He glared dramatically at them. "I mean I was scared-stiff of being stuck in that place for the rest of my short life!"
The grim statement echoed on young minds.
"There was one particular section of the maze that somehow, I always managed to return to. I knew every passage that led to it – in and out – both ways and I knew every rock and boulder – or so I thought.
In the dimness, my sense of direction was guided by touch. The rough or the smooth of the next handhold, the left or right of the next foothold. There were many times when I had to slump down, feeling and thinking the worst. What scenery had I to look at then! Only the walls of my own prison.
In that hellish state, I would often think of my journey home and how my progress had faltered. I must tell you now that the real purpose of my travels was only to return home. Yet here, there was no rising sun to follow, no swift and true path."
Aquila was silent for a moment. Then he began again.
"So I would remember it, as I sat there in that dark cavern. I'd think of all the solar systems I'd ever visited in my travels, lovely and tranquil as many of them were, yet not one like my own home. Then I'd think of all the different beings and people I'd ever come across and – friendly and loving as the best of them were, there were few souls to compare with my own dear family, who were the bravest and most truthful people you could hope to meet.
I'd searched the galaxy for a single trace of their passing and yet there I was, ended up in a dark 'n stinking hole with no-one but a devil or two for company.
Ah, if I could tell you the games we played on the old world… amongst the rolling…. but no. I must get on."
His ancient brow wrinkled up and he sighed.
"The difficulty was, how much longer could I exist down there with my powerful muscles wearied and my hopes fading? And don't forget, the air was so thin that breathing itself was a strain.
Well, as I was crouched there doing all this sad thinking, half-mad and staring at the cracks and crannies in the stone, a simple idea occurred to me. Why was I able to see such fine details of the maze at all? True – the passages were dim – but where did that dim light come from?
I peered at the gaps in the darkness. Was one a fraction less murky than the others?
Behind me, I sensed a tunnel, its earthy walls reflecting a reddish glow. At my feet, I sensed another, spiralling downwards with a damp and greenish tinge. Suddenly, I felt frightened. I was on the edge of a precipice! I dared not move except to toss a root-straw into the void below me. Was it possible the straw changed as it tumbled into the eerie green depths? I watched carefully for a minute or so.
Something was stirring. At first it was no more than a chalk fleck but perhaps it was a saviour, a pristine instrument which might aid my escape.
I pulled a splinter from the rock ceiling above and I saw a tiny star of light. It was the light of day. Then, twirling and rising towards me in this new light, came another gift. It was a slender, sturdy kind of pole or staff!
The air shook and shuddered. I fumbled – and then I grasped it!
The strangest and most amazing events ensued. I noticed that the staff was faintly vibrating to my touch. I heard a rumbling overhead.
Looking up, I saw the tunnel expand. Chips and chunks of stone floated into space. Mouldy earth was peeling away. With every second that passed, soft, happy evening sunshine was pouring in. Great single slabs seemed to be miraculously moving apart. The vault was opening.
If only my body were not so weakened, I might clamber out to freedom.
The staff began to vibrate more strongly. It seemed as if the thing were responding to my wishes. The scene was changing once more. Mistily, in the glimmer, scraps of quartz and strands of vapour were whisking together. A contraption was taking shape. Rising to my dangling foot, were crystal steps and slender threads. It was a fine rope ladder!
I must have been stricken early with the old age that afflicts me now, yet I had no wish for the discomforts of an untimely grave. So, I raised my right foot and to my surprise, found renewed vigour.
Soon, I was bounding skywards. The roof of the vault parted into uncountable pieces and the magic ladder created one new stair each time I stepped.
The mysterious rod allowed me to bypass gravity. As I wafted it overhead, the musty fabric of the maze was torn and all the stars of night appeared.
I forged onwards and upwards. It quickly became apparent that the stairway was arching as it approached the exit. The route would be less arduous. Yet, as I took in this little relief, something else seemed to sap my strength. By some jiggery-pokery, my limbs grew heavier and my heart more desperate. Each stride grew larger and longer.
I needed one almighty leap and just one glimpse of liberty. Thighs tensed – bend – push and I thrust myself above the lip of the maze.
What I saw in that brief moment was enough to make me return to my dungeon. You must realize that the images passed before me cartoon-like. Face flung back, I saw the rocky ceiling retreat, to be replaced by a twilight sky. Then, as I passed the summit, my head jolted down and I caught sight of the view. The magic stairway was flattening and diminishing as it struck out into the distance in a shallow, bridge-like causeway. At its zenith was a massive sphere – shrouded in mist but still lighting the way ahead.
But wait. There is worse! My fingers sweated. Droplets fell towards the distant globe, then far past it into the night. In that icy darkness, something more ugly was spawned. The shadow of a serpent!
With luck, I managed to land safely. I came down sane, hitting the steps with a bump. The sight of such a scene might have put most of you of balance for good but I stooped firmly in the shelter of two great stone slabs."
There was a stunned silence amongst the audience around the old oak tree. The aged warrior had stopped talking. He was breathing harder from the sight of the memories he had unearthed. He reflected on the fact that this was not one of his gentler tales. A few of us whispered to one another, the basis of our confusion being that one so old could once have been so mighty and brave. I think the ancient one also, if the truth was known, found himself a little contrary when faced with his former capabilities.
Nevertheless, the eagle wished to continue. He settled himself comfortably on his little crag beneath the shady leaves. There was much of our story to come yet. So we waited keenly as the sage coughed, cleared his throat, licked his beak and showed us his upturned palms in resignation.
"Surely I was doomed!" he cried. "I was left with a dire choice. Either I scrambled back down the magic staircase and suffocated in that hell-hole – or I took my chances and pushed forward to face the prospect of a giant snake.
I knew little of snakes but I do know that even the best of 'em are creatures of the heat and sunshine. If I were to lay a finger outside, even this late in the day, the beast might still detect my position. Maybe I could make a dash over the edge of the rock but my roost was fringed by jagged, overhanging cliffs that dropped away into some kind of valley.
Then all at once, I laughed at my own stupidity. For, what did I hold I my hands but the very find upon which all these wild events had followed : the vibrating rod – the staff!
Here was my rescue and here was my defence. The implement lay across my knees. It had become cold to the touch. It looked as brittle as calcite and was turning a freezing blue. its tremor had reached a cruel pitch.
Why had I not felt the frost around me and the patches of snow? It was bitter weather and the rod was responding to it. I rose from my crouch. There was a patch of silver visible beyond the brink. I rose a bit more. A magnificent ice-bound estuary stretched all the way to the horizon. I raised my eyes a fraction further and saw something which raised my heart too.
Can you guess why all my hopes changed so quickly? There, beyond the magic stairway lay a great blue-green planet. Some tense conflict had taken place between the elements. Where the base of the sphere came close to the frozen surface of the estuary, there was flame. The ice had cracked and splintered and steamed. The wasted mists had risen and settled around this new world.
I called it the Silver Planet. It might be the home I had searched for so long. The place where I had grown-up so happily with my mother and father - and it seemed only an arm's length away.
What was happening behind those silvery mists? I remembered people who had told of the coming silver time. Of how our planet would be plunged into half-blindness. Of how our sun would be masked by cloud. They spoke of how our crops would lie sodden in the fields and our cattle starve during an endless winter. They told of how each soul would retreat into stoney madness!"
The mighty eagle aimed one quick and ultimately sober glance at us. All he wanted was to ensure that we understood the full gravity of his words.
When night comes, a good town draws its people home. At the oak tree, it was not yet dark – but it was a little scarey. Some of the children perhaps wished they were indoors in the warm. Even the tree looked a bit lonely, with the damp curling up, out and into its lower branches.
The day was ending but not with its familiar move to long shadows and lingering sunlight. It was overcast and the foggyness seemed to bring its own peculiar light.
Aquila sensed our dismay. He folded his arms, relaxed and smiled. He could see our anxiety. A few of us had pictured flames and serpents appearing from the gloom in which we sat. He reassured us. Here our world was safe. Soon his story would end. Each of us would return to family and friends.
Our doubts were settled to some extent. Such strange events could never happen in our part of the universe. Those with wilder imaginations did wonder though.
What was happening on that silver planet? People might be freezing to death – or living in rack and ruin as the globe toppled on its axis. No sunshine - no moonshine – no ice-cream!
We saw visions. Crowds of shattered souls limping over blistering deserts. Lonely, crying children wading through waist-high floodwaters. No pictures – no films – only shivering eyeballs staring from derelict halls.
The eagle gave us a stern look. He implied that all of this was a problem to be solved and not a subject for speculation.
"Listen on!" he commanded. "No matter what lay hidden in those silver mists, I knew what I had to do. I seized the rod, gathered my courage and leapt with all the power I had remaining, up and out again. This time to tackle any serpent who got in my way."
Every listener was certain they saw the eagle flap away from his eerie.
"As soon as I left the safety of my hideaway, a continuous, vile hissing commenced. One step, two steps and I was prancing along the magic stairway. Far beneath me, lay the ice-field and upon that, like a scorch, the shadow of the snake.
It happened quickly enough. The fiery mark on the landscape below was extinguished and its writhing spirit ascended. As I moved my foot forward, the very next stair promptly came ablaze. The stairway was trapped in his tentacle.
He was a comical brute – no longer a shadow now – but a grinning scaley face veering towards me. The upper jaw was hook-ended and his mouth contained many tiny teeth. The bulbous eyes were set high on his skull.
He struck out for my right arm and I was just able to fend him off. With one great waft of the rod, I sent him reeling and wriggling back two-hundred yards or more. He near whistled through the frosty air – almost back into his embers.
Then I noticed something else about my wondrous stave. While one end retained its ice coolness, the other was already glowing a dull red, as if it had been plunged into a furnace. If the reptile launched a second attack, I resolved to fight fire-with-fire.
There was a technique to be learned. As I twisted the weapon, sparks flew-off and my hand became the engine of a whirling, burning baton. I wielded a poker freshly taken from the coals and whisked aglow. Catching him on the rebound, I used the tip of the rod to twirl his slinky body into a loop and his nodding head was fascinated. He was stopped in his tracks.
I was able to knock him back one more time but still he returned – this time looking more incensed with rage. His whole purple length was quivering and his jaws were shaking like a mad dog's.
Youngsters. This serpent's desire to escape his own hell-hole was as strong as mine. Seeing me as the first barrier in his path, he had wrongly assumed that I wanted to prevent him from making his escape. Perhaps, if I were to divert his attention.
In the distance, hovering at the edge of the Silver Planet, I saw a minute moon! Tickling my ribs, I saw the snake's tail. What if the one were to find t'other?
You must understand that I am not telling you about any ordinary adventure. You must imagine a place where time and distance are stretched. Where a thing can be here – and at the same moment – way over there too!
That tiny moon for example. In my eye, it was far out in space – but in the serpent's eye – it might be resting on the very tip of his tail!
We will wait to see what happens regarding that phenomenon.
As these plans were flashing through my mind, I felt a sharp, searing pain at the base of my neck. The serpent's slithering tongue was circling my jugular. There was no time to retaliate. For, within seconds, he coiled around my torso. I kicked and punched but one arm – and the crazy rod – were trapped against my belly.
The serpent's constriction grew, by degrees more agonising, bending my bones and squeezing my veins.
Now, trapped as I was, I still possessed knowledge of the evil creature's habit and instinct. Any snake would prefer to be in a dry, warm environment. Out in that frosty scape, he was not on his best form. His only retreat was the dungeon I had left vacant.
I was gasping for my life. His coils lifted me higher – far into the sky. My precious planet and people were now a long way down – ensconced in flame. Would we all be consumed in this awful mix-up of nature? I could still see her elusive and oh-so-hopeful, green shades.
My energies were restored. A voice spoke close to my breast, where the cooling rod lay pressed to me – between hard snake scales and soft human skin. It told me 'let fire be fire'. Then you can quench it!
The little moon still hovered alongside the Silver Planet. With my free right arm I screwed the rod clockwise. The serpent's gaze was distracted. He saw the moon on his tail! He was baffled. His stamina slipped. His coils slackened. In that instant, I grabbed the slenderest and most elastic section of him in my clenched fist. Then I wrapped the thin coils on to the top of the rod.
The lower end of the rod drew energy from the planet. As the stave continued turning clockwise, a revolving combination developed. Pole, planet and stairway curled back on themselves, like an overwound, platted string.
To the giant serpent this was a grave dilemma. Spliced blue to the rod, he grew cooler and cooler!"
By this time, we children at the oak tree wondered if our own fate was tied-up with Aquila's story. Could it be our brothers and sisters, our own aunts and uncles on that silver planet? We waited to see if the eagle would win through.
"I fixed my eyes upon a crystal of ice as it fell mid-way between our duelling faces. Could I persuade the snake to focus on this shining gem – instead of on me? My trick worked. He gloated on this strange new item.
Using my free heal, I gently kicked his top loop, which was connected to his rapidly freezing brain. Then I released the rod.
The force in the twisted serpent was discharged like a spent machine. He was spun into a frenzied whiplash. The buckling stairway sprang back through a figure of eight and the poor planet wobbled!
The serpent was totally off balance. Left went right – up went down – and in went out. He was beat and his tongue finally slipped away from my sore neck.
He was fading fast. He had wriggled one last wriggle in a world too cold for him. Mercifully, he peeled off. My chest was clear and I could breath easy.
As I looked up, I saw only a pale, comical ghost.
I found myself perched precariously in space. The snake had long since relinquished his claim to the stairway. His body drifted towards the maze.
However, this did leave me with a rocky staircase to handle. Some stairs jostled aimlessly some rolled over and down towards the ground. The one I balanced on threatened to fall imminently.
I noticed that crystals still wore off the staff. They seemed to descend at a reasonable rate. They were like snowflakes. Choosing one of them as my guide, I followed it with forefinger and thumb, tip-toeing to the part of the stairway which fell at the same gentle pace.
The stairs cartwheeled and this seemed to ease the speed too. My landing was on its way. The sky was lightening to a pure blue.
The distant crags were nothing but an isolated outcrop and the ice-field drew ever nearer.
I wouldn't know much about my touch down. The exhausting effect of the battle and the floating fall had lulled me into a pleasant dream.
I remember a few of the last things. The transparent stairs that preceded me. The indigo shadow of the rod, as it melted into the silvery white. The crystal that led me to the softest, snowiest spot."
Aquila, the old one bowed his head solemnly and raised it again with a wry smile. His tale had reached its end. He was tired and a little stiff in the neck.
In the sky, over the high don, the mist had cleared to a deep blue. The first faint stars appeared and a few milky clouds hung on beyond the topmost leaves of oak. The mood of the children had eased. They were almost sleepy.
"When I came to," he whispered. "I found myself lying on the ice, shivering. Ahead of me, on the horizon, the air was glowing a ruddy yellow and only whisps of smoke arose.
The staircase arched wiltingly above. A number of single stairs had fallen but curiously they blended with the frozen surface, as if made of h2O.
I sat up. Smokey, serpentine swirls clawed space…"
The eagle was interrupted. It was a boy of about eight years, who lay on the grass, just out of sight.
"Oi mate!" he demanded. "Where's this serpent now then?"
"Ah, that I cannot tell you, son. I can tell you though, where he went to on that bitter night above the estuary. As his coils slipped from the rod, I watched his material form slowly meander away to find a resting place in the mountains I had escaped.
He was not dead. The ice-cold upon his heart had only stunned him."
Another questioner spoke up. He was a small youth, kneeling at the back of the group.
"What happened to that great rod then?"
Aquila had guessed that some members of the gathering would like to see evidence of his adventure or maybe even want to test the rod themselves. He considered his answer.
"As I got up from the ice-field, the mysterious rod was still by my side. It was lying encrusted in snow. It had helped to break my fall and I remember pointing it before me as I tripped. After my tumble, I casually reached out to pick it up.
But you know, I couldn't possess it. Perhaps no one could. The stave was dissipating. The chalky solids were separating. It quickly became a puff of powder and steam.
How might I have escaped the maze without it and from what serpent?"
The eagle chuckled sadly. "After all that, I would see it no more."
At that point, a tiny but important voice caused Aquila to stall in mid-flight.
"What about the silver planet?" it said.
Aquila viewed the same shy little child who had so aptly questioned him at the beginning of the story.
"Well, I was coming to that little one but you may as well hear it now. When I raised my head from the ice, I could see that the vast circle of mist had cleared. There was nothing left. There was no great blue-green sphere on the horizon. The Silver Planet was gone!"
Immediately, he heard another urgent speaker. It was an intelligent young girl who had listened sensitively throughout the whole tale.
"But then what about the silver time?" she asked. "What about the dying crops and starving cattle? About your people going mad and our world ending in catastrophe. It must have all happened!"
We watched him consider the dilemma carefully. We watched his intense, glistening eyes penetrate some place faraway. Westward, over the heads of the children, he saw the day ending. The good summer sun was still faintly visible but sinking into the haze of a warm evening. The first congenial lights of the townhouses were welcoming them home.
We saw his darkened face slowly turn. His long, whitened hair rode softly on the night breeze. The girl had long since finished her questioning but he seemed locked in some age-old puzzle : standing before a path he had never walked or confronted by an improbable possibility on some far-off planet.
"I think the silver time, as my people called it, is gone by and I was lucky enough to see its passing. And, I believe the planet in the mist was my home. I am happy to have been so close just once." The eagle paused sharply, to scan his young friends for any sign of doubt.
"But Kids! Consider this. How often are you afraid of the terrible things you picture in your minds and how often do those terrors fade? You saw a silver planet threatened with disaster where there was only an empty region of space – and perhaps you saw anger and fire where there was only a foolish serpent who needed to retire gracefully."
The eagle was tired and wanted move on too.
"When I awoke on the estuary there was one bright new star…
"Just a minute!" The cheeky eight year old who lay out of sight, at the root of the tree, had interrupted again. "You keep telling us about this super precious home of yours but why should we believe you? Where is it? Show it to us!"
After this, Aquila was silent. His tongue had fallen and he could say no more. Then, with some panache, he suddenly moved his arms through the dampening air above our company. Snakes of mist followed his hands. He was tracing for us, a subtle sketch.
At its centre was a bright orb, casting its silvery light over the circle of tilting heads. It was a star – true enough – and so close that even the doubting boy reached out.
We soon guessed it was the final twist in his tale. There were a thousand stars shining over the hill town and a thousand-million more waiting in the darkness. Yet, there was just one star he wanted to bring to our attention. It shone out with a clear light.
Was it really there in our midst or was it another illusion created by his wistful hands? Perhaps it was near – perhaps it was more distant. Even so, it moved above the houses of our town.
As each of us yawned or stretched, found our feet – and began to tread the familiar path – I think we knew the answer. It was the star that would light our way home.
copyright Paula Wichall 2014