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This is the tale of Pelon and the darkness.
In the days when the earth and the sky were young, the sun shone warm each day, and in their proper turns, the thirteen moons shone cold each night. Then one day, proud Aquilon grew jealous of the sun’s heat. He said, ‘The sun is not a god, as I am. Yet he has light and heat, and I have only light.’ The more he thought, the more he decided that it was wrong that it should be so. He summoned his dragons – cold creatures of moonlight – and he commanded them to fly through the vast spaces of the sky and to swallow the heat of the sun.
Now, on earth, began an age of ice and fire. Sometimes, the dragons came, with scorching, destroying flame. Mostly, though, it was a time of bitter cold. The sun shone cold, Aquilon shone cold. Wind and frost bit into soft flesh and turned breath to ice.
When Aquilon waned and the rule of Himalios began, the people of earth pleaded with him, to kill the dragons and restore the heat of the sun. But Himalios said, ‘Alas! Great wrongs are easily done; mending them is slow and difficult. I cannot make the sun warm again. Its heat is like the blossom of a plant and you must wait for it to grow. Nor can I kill my brother’s dragons. All I can do is to pen them deep under the mountains, but when Aquilon rules next year, he will find them and release them on you again.’ Himalios did as he had promised. He imprisoned the dragons, but the sky and earth were still frozen and the people of earth suffered and died in the cold.’
Now, in those days, there was a man called Pelon, a goatherd in the northern mountains. He took his flock to feed in a hidden valley, high up, ringed by giant peaks. While they fed, he walked to keep himself warm, his arms around his chest, his head down. The calling of a bird made him look up, and to his astonishment, he saw that from the highest mountain, a column of smoke was rising into the clear cold air.
Next day, Pelon left his goats with his daughter. He went back alone to the valley, and climbed towards the smoking mountain; slowly, because of the snow and ice on the path. He climbed all morning. At midday, he reached the foot of a cliff. It was higher than he could have dreamed possible, towering endlessly above his head, and its face was as shiny and smooth as polished glass. There could be no climbing it. He needed to rest before walking back, so he sat down on a stone at the foot of the cliff. He watched a small bird land in the snow at his feet, bob its head – and disappear. Puzzled, he got up to see where it had gone.
It had hopped into a crack in the cliff face. Near the ground, the crack widened to a hole, big enough for Pelon. He put his head and shoulders into it. Inside, it was dark: a thick darkness that wrapped itself round him like something living. He pulled himself back, and breathed in deep breaths of air and light.
Pelon sat down on the stone again. He had seen smoke from inside this mountain, and that meant fire, and fire meant heat, and for want of heat, his people were dying. But to find it, he would have to travel into the darkness, out of the moonsight. He looked up to the sky, and breathed a prayer to Himalios, a prayer full of doubt.
‘Can You protect me, Great Lord, even when You cannot see me?’
Fearfully, he crawled back into the hole in the mountain. Darkness filled his eyes and thundered in his ears; he was breathing it in, tasting it. It crawled on his skin. He stood up and started to walk away from the sky and the moonsight; out of the reach of god. He lost all sense of time. Without knowing it, he had been walking for a day and a night when, ahead of him, he saw a glimmer of light – not the cold blue of daylight, but the warm red of fire. He hurried on, able to see where he was going now, in the strengthening light, until he came to a high cavern where the rocks reflected the red of hundreds of little fires.
Pelon slumped against the wall of the cave and cursed his foolishness. Of course. He knew what Himalios had promised. How could he not have guessed what that smoke was?
Dragons. The cave was full of them. They glowed faintly red, the fire inside them so fierce that it shone through their tough, scaly skins. They were restless, lying crowded and tangled in one another’s limbs, fighting for space. Where they quarrelled, flames leaped up.
‘Get out now,’ Pelon thought. ‘Before they consume you.’ He didn’t move. The dragons had the secret of warmth and fire; if he could only, somehow, take it from them. He took one step forward; then another; and then another… and his foot kicked a loose stone. It bounced away, striking the rocky floor of the cavern, and a thousand heads rose and a thousand pairs of yellow eyes gleamed. Pelon waited to die. He waited, and waited. Then he realised that the dragons weren’t looking at him. They were following the sound of the stone as it rolled across the floor.
Pelon tiptoed back out of the cavern and leaned against the tunnel wall. The dragons couldn’t see well; they could be easily misled by noise. If he was cunning and crafty, he might be able to outwit them – except he still didn’t have the beginnings of an idea of how he could carry fire back outside the mountain and all the way down to his village. Then he saw it.
At first, he thought it was a pile of rocks, but they were too smooth and too regular, and no rock in nature ever shone with that faint glimmer of red.
Pelon collected all the stones that he could carry. He crept back into the cavern and keeping in the shadows of the wall, worked his way closer and closer to the pile of eggs. When he got near, he could feel the heat radiating from them, like the heat of the sun.
Pelon threw his first stone, high and hard. It hit the rock and shattered, and the noise echoed off every wall of the cavern. The confused dragons turned this way and that and in the commotion, Pelon crept to the foot of the nest. He reached for an egg, grasped it – gritting his teeth, because it was hot – and pulled. The pile of eggs swayed – rocked – and fell. Eggs tumbled along the floor of the cave, bursting open with little spurts of smoke and fire. The dragons roared, flailed their tails and clawed the air for the unseen attacker.
Pelon feared that if he ran, they would hear him. So he turned his back to them, hiding the glimmer of the egg between his shaking body and the cave wall. The dragons raged for hours, and he pressed himself against the rock, expecting all the time to feel searing flame or a ripping talon across his back. At last, when he had almost stopped hoping, their anger lessened and died into silence, broken only by occasional mournful cries. Pelon crept back to the mouth of the tunnel. When he got there, his patience broke and he started to run. The dragons heard him. There were roars and flames behind him. They were coming after him down the tunnel, unable to fly in the narrow space, but crawling along it, fast, like giant lizards. Pelon gripped his stolen egg and ran faster. Flame filled the tunnel behind him; it was like running from a river of fire.
‘I will pen them under the mountain,’ Himalios had sworn, and he kept his promise. When he thought he was going to die, Pelon came to a place where the tunnel was low and very narrow and the dragons could not follow him. All they could do was roar and hiss as he ran on to safety. He found his way back to the opening in the cliffs, guided by the glimmer from the egg. When he returned to his village, he learned that he had been away three whole days and nights: three nights out of the sight of god. But he was triumphant.
‘Build a pile of sticks,’ he commanded. The villagers looked at one another and whispered that the darkness had sent him mad. Still, they did as he had asked. Then Pelon cracked the egg.
A wisp of smoke, a sudden flaring of fire. He dropped the egg into the heart of the sticks and the fire took hold. It crackled, then it roared. The flames glowed red and orange, then white with intense heat. The villagers gathered round it and warmed themselves.
Pelon searched the faces in the firelight. His friends and neighbours were all there, laughing at the miracle that he had brought them, but the face that he had most hoped to find was missing, and he asked, ‘Where’s my daughter?’
At first, they were too scared to answer him, then the boldest of them stepped forward and said, ‘She went to look for you. When you didn’t come home.’
‘Into the mountains?’ Pelon asked, and the man nodded. ‘Yet none of you went with her?’
Ashamed, they would not meet his eyes, and he walked away from the fire which he had brought them, and started the long climb into the mountains again. He walked all night. At dawn, the killing cold sharp on his skin, he came to a shallow hollow among the rocks. She was lying among the rocks. In the night, the gentle snow had fallen on her. She would not feel it, nor anything else, now.