The great Bear took a few steps out of the cave and said, “Tuck your feet behind my shoulders, shut your eyes, and hold on tightly.”
Jay obeyed, and was immediately even more vividly aware of the feel of Bear's long fur under her hands, the movement of muscles under the fur, the caress of the warm sun, the wind on her face and in her hair.
“Are you afraid of heights, Jay my dear?”
“Um, I don't really know. I don't mind climbing trees, but I've never been up any higher than I can climb.”
“Then you will have to decide for yourself whether to open your eyes, for we are no longer on the ground.”
Jay knew of course that bears don't fly, and hadn't noticed any change in the motion under her; but accepted that she was, however impossibly, airborne. She considered whether or not to open her eyes, which were currently squeezed tight shut in response to Bear's warning. Deciding that she definitely, definitely was not going to be afraid, and that it would be a shame to miss any part of the adventure she was having, she opened her eyes and gasped with wonder. They were well above the canopy of the silver birch trees, among which Jay could make out the occasional evergreen; and they were heading towards the foothills of the mountains. The air was very clear: small birds flew below them among the upper branches and Jay was delighted to spot a red squirrel launch itself from one tree to another beneath them. Her delight intensified when she saw a huge bird in the distance, flying slowly and stately towards them.
“Is that an eagle?” she asked Bear.
“It is indeed Eagle,” was the reply. Jay noticed the capital letters again. “He is coming to see who I have brought.”
As the huge bird approached, Jay could make out the pattern and shape of each feather and the striations and chips on the ferocious beak. Awed, she looked straight into the only eye she could see. This was a deep rich topaz, black-rimmed and set deeply in smooth white feathers.
“Who is this, Mother Bear?”
“This is Jay, my ward. I am her guardian, and I am taking her to find the help for which she has asked.”
“Go well, little one,” said the Eagle in a deep voice. “But take care, for there are those who would harm you even in this world. And take good notice of what is around you, for everything here has life and meaning.” So saying, and with a dip of his curved beak towards them, he flew straight up and then away into the distance.
“Wow,” exclaimed Jay, deeply impressed. “That was stunning. Who was he really? How come all you animals can talk here? What did he mean, take care?”
“First of all, Jay, not all of us have the power of speech, only we Great Ones, although a few of the lesser beings are also gifted. There are many of us. We each come from a different direction. I and my people, for example, we Bears come from the West, out of caves and earth, and we hold introspection and inner growth to be our powers.”
“What do you mean, intro - s - what did you say?”
“Introspection is the ability to look inside yourself and to practise looking until you know who you really are. Eagle's people come from the East. Their power is to see far, to see the larger patterns in the flow of life and to understand their meaning. As to your other question -”
“Please excuse me,” said Jay politely, interrupting as she had often been told not to, “but before you go on to tell me something else, I really want to know some more about you and Eagle. Are there other - what you said - Great Ones?”
“There are many of us, as I said, others of us in each quarter: North and South as well as East and West. But it would take too long to tell you everything, and we have arrived at the place to which I am taking you. Look around you: you may need to know some of this country. I will explain more of what Eagle meant when we are on the earth again.”
They were making a leisurely descent. To their right was quite a large body of water which stretched so far into the distance that it seemed, in one direction, to have no end. Jay decided that it probably wasn't the sea, as the shoreline didn't seem to have a proper beach, nor a line where the waves had washed up wood and other debris. In fact, the waves were very small and lacked the sea's incessant rhythm. There were more evergreens among the birches, and clearings with yellow-flowered gorse and other shrubs which Jay could not identify; as they landed in a large clear patch at the side of the lake, Jay took a deep breath of the fragrant air. She smelt sweet gorse, pine, herbs which she recognised from her mother's cooking, and something which, she realised with surprise, smelt like the gin Father used to keep in the locked drinks cabinet at home. She felt a sharp pang of homesickness flooding through her, and bent her head forward to rest her face on the Bear's thick coat.
“Off you get, Jay dear,” commanded the Bear, “I have some things to tell you.” She lowered herself onto the fine sand not far from the lake's edge.
Jay clambered down obediently and waited expectantly, grateful to be distracted from her unhappiness.
“Eagle said that you were to take care, but he didn't tell you much more than that. Now it falls to me to warn you. Do not under any circumstances have anything to do with any reptile which shows its teeth! Listen and pay attention! There are crocodiles, lizards, snakes and such here. Not all of them wish you harm. The sign is definite: look out for teeth, or you may not live to return to your own world. But also stay alert and do not be too afraid of all animals, for Snake may have a message for you or offer you help, and she is to be trusted. There are other perils, and if you are afraid, trust to your intuition...”
“Just trust to your feelings, Jay dear, but be cautious. Run away from anything that appears to be a threat. Most of our people who are not a threat will understand and come to you gently, although there are also those who will come apparently in friendship and yet be a danger to you. Also be thoughtful around Coyote, should you encounter him. He looks like a dog, and may give you good advice; but he may also mislead you, for he loves to play games and does not necessarily care about the outcome. Now I must go. I will see you again before the end of your quest. Farewell!”
Noiselessly, Bear turned and was gone before Jay could say goodbye, or thank her. There was no sign of where she had gone, no disturbance of the surrounding bushes, nor even a footprint to give away the direction she had taken.
Dismayed, Jay sat down on one of the rocks near the water's edge. Suddenly she was feeling very lost and lonely. She listened for the sound of the drums, but could barely make them out over the gentle lapping of the water, stretching blue and almost limitless under the cloudless summer sky. She picked up a stone and skimmed it over the surface of the water.
“...thank you...” said a silvery little voice. She skimmed another one. One, two, three skips before it sank. Again the voice said, “...thank you....” Jay looked around. There was nobody to be seen. The third time it happened, she recalled what Eagle had said, that everything here was alive and had meaning, so she stopped throwing stones. Maybe it was the lake thanking her for what had not been a deliberate gift. She took off her pack. It wasn't that she was exactly hungry; but she definitely wanted some comfort. To her astonishment there was more in the pack than she remembered leaving: more rough bread, some leaves which she took to be salad, two pieces of fruit and another packet of the sweet cake, along with several other packets which Jay didn't recognise. She took the cake out and nibbled at it. It was delicious; but Jay was really hankering after chocolate. She got up and crumbled a little into the lake, as a deliberate gesture towards what might be a living thing. “...thank you” came again.
She sat down again, put the remains of the cake back into the pack and unscrewed the leather flask. The contents no longer smelt like wine. Intrigued, Jay took a sip. Inside the flask was a sweet, strong liquid whose taste she couldn't identify; whatever it was, it certainly wasn't wine now. She took quite a long drink before screwing the stopper on again and putting the flask back in the pack. She was about to investigate one of the other packets when a sweet but somehow gritty voice spoke.
“Aren't you going to share your dinner with me, young one? It all looks very tasty.”
There was a sliding noise, and Jay looked up to see a monstrous warty crocodile slithering towards her over the strand, a wide grin on its jaws showing many sharp, discoloured teeth. Jay scrambled to her feet with great alarm, her pack slipping to the ground forgotten. She turned and ran as fast as she could into the trees, her running soon turning into great leaps and bounds as her fear took over. She could hear laughter behind her. Was it gaining on her?
She ran and ran. As she got into her stride she began to take notice of what was around her: she was going gradually uphill and away from the lake. Soon there were more pines than birch, and the ground under her shoes was soft and covered in brown pine needles. She was sure she was still being followed, but her bounding eventually gave way to ordinary running. Now she could hear definite sounds of something coming along fast behind her, and speeded up again.
After pelting along for a very long time she risked a glance behind her, trying not to break her headlong pace. Surely the crocodile wouldn't have come this far from the lake? The glance she took confirmed her fears: she was being followed, not by the crocodile but by a group of animals that looked certain to catch her soon. Wolves, they looked like, red wolves. She tried to run even faster but she was tiring now, stumbling over tree roots, lurching sideways on the slippery pine needles, grazing her fingers on rough tree boles. Now she was gasping to draw breath. The stitch in her side got worse and worse. She couldn't keep this up much longer, and she could still hear the sounds of pursuit.
On she stumbled, onwards and upwards through the sparse pine forest until at long last she came to a flat clearing with a large oak tree in the centre. Here she stopped, winded and frightened. She turned and stood with her back to the tree, her breath coming in short painful gasps, her face hot and throbbing. Her heart was thumping fast and almost painfully: she was absolutely helpless with exhaustion as she faced her pursuers. She could hardly see.
As her vision cleared, she realised that the seven or eight dog-like animals were smaller than she had expected, and showed no sign of being aggressive but kept their distance as they circled around facing her. Their thick, dense fur ranged from a deep rusty red colour to a greyish brown, which was darker on their backs than on their sides. One of the largest dogs had thick creamy yellow chest fur. They all had white chests, bellies and paws and rather short muzzles, which made their faces look quite appealing, emphasised by the white tufts that stuck out of their rounded ears. All their tails were black and hung rather low as they wagged them slowly, gazing back at Jay with amber eyes.
Gradually she got her breath back, still watching them warily although she was still too winded to speak to them.
they said, taking turns to speak in a way that sounded as breathless and hurried as Jay herself felt.
“We gotta” “summink of yoursa” “whatta you lefta” “you should 'ave it”
“backa” “so we don't” “gotta” “carry it” “no furver.”
“Whydja run” “away” “from us?” (pant, pant)
“We wos ony” “tryin' to welpa.” (pant, pant.)
While they had been circling her, Jay had only been concerned to get her breath back and to withstand whatever came her way. Now she could see that one of them carried her pack in its jaws. She could see teeth; but these were definitely not reptiles. Suddenly she felt a bit foolish and not in the slightest bit frightened. She gave a small gasping laugh, partly at herself and partly in relief, and dropped to the ground, wrapping her arms around her sore legs. The strange animals lined up in front of her, grinning.
“Ere y'ar gal” “'sa longa way” “you good” “runna!” (pant, grin, pant)
She grinned back at them.
“Thank you,” she managed to get out through her breathlessness. “I'm sorry I ran, I thought you were the crocodile still following me.”
She could have sworn they laughed, though they made no sound but the panting.
“That ole croc” “she not go far” “she bad one that” “you lucky you”
“getta free” “she fasta one she” “but not for far."
The dog holding the pack came gently up to her, curling its back sideways, dipping its head as it came, and looking from side to side as though for approval. Suddenly Jay realised where she had seen this before: a wildlife programme about animals of Mexico had shown animals similar to these. The Bear had mentioned them. They must be coyotes!
“Nono we wild dogga,” one said, without her having spoken her thought. “we likea little coyote” “we Dhole!"
“We Cuon” “not Coyote” “him bigg'r'n us,” they panted.
Jay didn't understand half of what they were saying: the words just didn't make sense, except that they weren't coyotes after all. She would just have to accept them as some sort of dog.
“Gizza bit gal!”
Jay took her pack, a bit gingerly as the straps were slimed from the drool of the lead dog's jaws, and opened it. She gave them some of the bread, which they gulped down eagerly.
“Thanka gal” “Now we showya” “how to getta” “to dragon!”
Jay gasped, appalled. “What do you mean? I'm not going to see any dragon!”
“Yes y'are” “you go see” “wise dragon” “we takeya”
“bitta way” “but not yetta” “first you eata” “then you sleepa”
“then we take ya.” “Lookinna pack” “you needa”
and then they all shouted at once,