"Oh, Mum! This is so cool," Ali Conroy mumbled, chewing through a piece of toast. "I thought you weren't going to believe me when I told you about Isshuay. But you knew all the time...even before I left. I can't believe you kept Isshuay a secret for so long."
Jane smiled at her daughter, still marvelling at the change in her since Ali had arrived home from the land of Isshuay. The timid dreamer her daughter had always been had vanished. The fair-skinned blonde with the clear blue eyes was now more confident than Jane had ever seen her. She'd almost glowed with happiness as she related the tale to her mother. She had done things in Isshuay that others could only dream about. Yet, underlying Ali's excitement, was her sadness at leaving Bern, the boy who had come to mean so much to her.
Jane had questioned her eagerly, keen to compare Ali's experience with her own.
"I couldn't say anything to you then, because it had to be your choice," Jane replied. "You had to go because you believed it was right, not because I said it was. I promised the Silver Ones that I would never tell anyone about Isshuay and what happened when I was there. After all, who would have believed me? It's a pretty wild story. I've kept their secret since I was your age. There've been many times I've wanted to tell you about it, Ali--well, now I can."
Jane loosened the ribbon tying back her glossy, dark brown hair and it tumbled free to frame her face. She'd been nursing all night at the local hospital but showed no signs of tiredness. For years, she had been waiting to share her story with her daughter and the time had finally arrived.
Ali picked up her milk and sipped. "Nestor went on and on about you. Only I didn't know then, that it was you he was talking about."
Jane grinned. "I wouldn't have gone at all if it hadn't been for him. It's hard to imagine that Nestor is an old man now. I can't believe so much time has passed in the land."
"Bern told me that the Silver Ones can alter time," Ali said. "I was in Isshuay for over a week, yet I only left last night. Perhaps it has something to do with the Shimmering as well. Oh! It's too complicated to think about. Come on, Mum! Tell me what happened to you...wasn't it something to do with the Time of the Missyl?"
"Yes. It certainly was." Jane frowned slightly, leaning back in her chair, remembering. "The trouble started ages ago, long before Nestor was born..."
Trapped within the invisible barrier, the creature struggled to free itself. Dismissive of the warnings of its elders, it had drifted northwards, curious to explore the forbidden land beyond the border. A patient search along the perimeter of the nebulous haze that formed the boundary of the land revealed a weakness. A gentle push and it squeezed through--trapped in a pearly prison--unable to move in any direction.
Panic arose within its childish consciousness. Desperate for freedom, it used the force of its mind to blast a way through the intricate lattices that formed the border. All sense of direction was lost as it forged blindly ahead. At last it breached the final barrier, tumbling free into clear space.
Probing with its senses, it explored the place it was in. A grassy hillside dotted with spreading trees; it would not survive long in this hostile environment. The golden sunlight burned like acid; the gentle breeze threatened to shred its ethereal body into wisps of misty filament.
Longing to be enveloped once again by the all-encompassing atmosphere of its home world, it cast about in an attempt to locate the breach in the border. But the border was gone. In its desperation to be free, it had thrust itself too far into this land. It sank to the ground with a mournful wail, giving voice to its loneliness and grief.
It was a young creature from another dimension; a child lost in an alien land. Yet, its survival instincts were deeply entrenched within its young mind. Moaning in distress, it summoned the meagre powers at its disposal.
To the north, it sensed movement; other creatures, though none like itself. A desperate need for companionship overcame caution as it drifted closer to observe. Hovering beneath the shelter of the trees it studied these others, its curious nature aroused. To its alien senses, these were primitive, earthbound creatures--yet perhaps, if it were careful, they would not suspect a difference.
Slowly, the wraith-like being began to change. This was its first attempt, yet it learned quickly, changing its shape into a copy of those others. Two arms and legs, hair, facial features and clothing such as the others wore, refining and improving, as it became more skilful.
Tentatively, it stood on newly-formed legs to take its first tottering steps. It worked hard at keeping its feet on the ground. It would never blend in with those others if it floated around as it did in its natural form. Gingerly at first, then growing in confidence, it became accustomed to its new shape. Casting a final, longing glance back to where the border should have been, the Missyl walked down the hill towards the town of Asta.
Old Vega sat on the porch overlooking Mirralake. As one of Asta's oldest residents he didn't do much of anything these days. A gentle man with never a harsh word for anyone, he was loved by all in the town. Vega rocked gently in his chair; the comforting squeak of its timbers was soothing, harmonising with the droning melody of the bees in the garden.
A movement amongst the trees skirting the lake caught his attention. He squinted to focus, thinking it must be one of the children. Now, which one could it be? No, it wasn't a child; it was a young man--a stranger. No, that couldn't be right. There were no strangers in Asta. Vega knew everyone and everyone knew him.
The boy moved closer, walking with an awkward gait, taking each step with care as if he were injured or in pain. He wore clothes like the loose garments the town children usually wore, but they were strangely tight fitting around the wrists and ankles. Yet he didn't appear to be one of those surly Southlanders who came to trade from time to time. Folks such as those were not encouraged to stay in the land of Isshuay. Vega reckoned that the boy looked to be about fifteen years old. His face had an odd appearance; there was something not quite right about him. Dark hair clung to his head like a skullcap, his pale grey eyes were closely set and the nose was slightly askew, perched above the slash of a mouth. No expression flickered on that face; it was totally blank, as if the boy walked in his sleep. Yet his eyes were open and fixed on Vega who warily watched him approach.
"Well, lad. And what can I do for you?"
The boy stood at the gate and stared at Vega.
The old man frowned. "You'll have to speak, lad. I can't read your mind."
Still there was no response from the boy. With a sigh, Vega rose from his comfortable chair and stepped down from the porch, keeping his eyes on the lad. Not a muscle had moved in that young body and not a sound had he uttered. He just stared fixedly at Vega while the old man shuffled towards him.
Vega reached the gate, unlatched it and swung it open. "Are you well, lad?"
The boy watched him unblinkingly with those pale grey eyes. Bewildered, Vega reached toward him. The slight figure hurriedly stepped back from the man's hand; an awkward movement, his body wavered, grew insubstantial--as if he were dissolving. Vega blinked in surprise; the boy had become a writhing cloud of mist that arrowed back to the shelter of the forest.
The old man stood stunned, watching the cloud retreat. A cold flood of realisation washed over him; he recognised the boy for what he was. A searing pain surged through his chest and he cried out. His legs buckled beneath him and he sank to the ground; his heart struggled to cope with the shock while he lay gasping on the flower-bordered pathway of his cottage. Alerted by his cry, Maren, Vega's wife, ran towards her husband as fast as her old legs could carry her. She knelt to the ground and cradled his head, hearing him whisper,
"There is a Missyl in the land. Warn the council."
"Save us!" Maren gasped as Vega's warning sank in. "If you are right, my love, our border has been breached."
As a wind sprite whips up the dust, the peaceful harmony of Isshuay was about to be shattered.
The Missyl shivered in abject misery. It had found a dark place to hide, beneath the roots of a tree deep in the forest. When that two-legged creature had reached for it, it had panicked and lost the shape it had painstakingly formed. Yet it had learned a valuable lesson. It would need to copy the sounds these creatures made. It must study them more carefully before trying to move amongst them again. To do that, it would need to get close to them without being seen. It gave the equivalent of a sigh. All it wanted was help to find the hole in the border so it could return home.
This morning, the town was abuzz with the news that old Vega had been set upon by a stranger who was rumoured to be a legendary Missyl. The shape-changing Missyls were the stuff of fairytales and legends. They were mentioned in the Lifestone document, but had never before been seen in Isshuay. The council hall, on the far side of the square, was the scene of frenzied activity, with members arriving and conferring about Vega's encounter. Groups of townspeople gathered under the trees near the hall to discuss this development and how it was likely to affect them all.
Devin, a carpenter, rested his back against the sturdy trunk of a young sapling and addressed his fisherman friend, Karel. "Old Vega must have been mistaken, Karel. Missyls have never been seen in Isshuay."
Karel frowned. "How would you know if you'd seen one? It can look like anything at all. It could be small as a crawler or big as a bo-ag... or even bigger. It could even be one of these trees and we would be none the wiser." The fisherman patted the smooth trunk his friend leaned against. He laughed. "Admit it, Devin. For all we know, Missyls have probably been visiting Isshuay for years."
"You may be right, Karel." Devin sighed. "I wonder what the council will do about it?"
"Probably nothing. You know what they're like, talk, talk and more talk. By the time they decide on anything the problem has usually resolved itself."
Devin grinned at his friend and climbed to his feet. "Speaking of folks who can talk. My Brina could out-talk the councillors any day. I'd better get on home, there's always work to be done."
"Give my best to Brina and young Marje." Karel suppressed a yawn. "I'm going home to sleep. The fish were biting most of the night so I've earned a rest." He watched his friend walk away, then bent to pick up his sack. A shimmer at the corner of his eye caught his attention. "Strange," he muttered. "Thought there was a tree there a moment ago." He shook his head. "Must have imagined it...more tired than I thought. Sooner I get some sleep the better for me."
"Did you hear what happened to Vega yesterday?" Brina asked her daughter, Marje, without waiting for a reply. "They say a Missyl attacked him. Knocked him down, then disappeared back into the forest. Ha! He must have had one-too-many ales with his dinner. Missyl indeed! Why, everyone knows Missyls can't come into Isshuay. And if they did, how could we tell? I've heard they can change into anything or anyone they wish. They could be trees of the forest, birds on the wing or even boats sailing on Mirralake."
Marje smiled to herself while she prepared some tea. She often thought that her mother would talk the ears off you, if you listened to her for long. Yet she cheerfully endured her mother's non-stop chatter with the patience of one who had learned to ignore small annoyances.
Her father, Devin, was a carpenter who spent long days in the workshop behind their cottage, fashioning goods to be sold at their stall in the marketplace. Marje knew well that he worked such long hours to avoid Brina's constant prattle.
"Perhaps one has slipped through the border, Mother. Vega would not imagine something like that."
Brina settled down to her tea with a shake of her head. "No, Marje, there are no Missyls here. There never has been and there aren't any now."
Marje thought that it would be good if there were. It would liven things up around Asta. It had been ages since anything exciting had happened in Isshuay. Oh sure, once in a while, some petty thievery would go on, or a southern troublemaker would be caught spell-making, and sent packing, but nothing really exciting ever happened. The land was beautiful, the weather was ideal and Marje was bored!
A movement near the ceiling caught Marje's eye. Ohh!Not another of those pesky crawlers again. She moved the curtain aside, but there was nothing there. She shrugged, turning her mind once again to the mysterious Missyl. Old Vega may have been partial to a pint or two, but it was unlikely that he would claim to have seen a Missyl without good reason. The old fellow was now recovering from the shock--he'd been lucky to live from all accounts. Marje was fond of Vega. She resolved to visit him and take him some of that nut cake he liked.
The Missyl blended into the folds of the curtain. That young creature had almost caught sight of it, but it had changed shape quickly enough to disappear. It had done well to follow that Devin creature to its home. Its eager young mind was processing and storing the information that older talkative creature was feeding it. Much of it was nonsense, but even the nonsense had value for the Missyl. Swiftly, it began to learn the language of these strange two-legged folk, gaining an understanding of the fears these people had for its own kind. It wondered if it would ever find the help it needed to return home.
Later that evening, when her mother had gone to bed and her father was still in his workshop, Marje sat sewing in the parlour. Sewing was one of the chores that girls were expected to excel at in Isshuay. Although Marje didn't particularly enjoy it, she did her best, bent over her work with her dark hair tumbling over her shoulders. Painstakingly, with slow even stitches, she embroidered a row of flowers around the hem of a skirt she was to wear to the Lifestone Festival.
A movement near the curtain caught her eye; a purple crawler was scuttling across the floor towards the door. Always prepared for invading crawlers, Marje grabbed an empty jar and pounced, trapping the bug neatly under the glass--crawlers would eat you out of house and home if you let them.
Deftly, she capped the jar and peered inside. To her amazement, the crawler began to dissolve into a swirling mist that twisted and writhed inside the jar. Alarmed at this unexpected development, Marje dropped the jar and the mist shot out into the room. It retreated into the shadows in a corner, as if to get as far from the girl as it could. All the while it swirled and churned furiously, like steam from a boiling kettle.
Marje watched, captivated. The mist was taking on a recognisable form: the slight figure of a boy dressed like any town lad, yet different. The boy stood still in the shadows, watching Marje warily. Instantly, the quick-witted girl realised who he was. Although she had heard all the stories, she felt no fear--only curiosity at meeting this legendary creature.
"You must be the Missyl that frightened Vega. What are you doing here, in our cottage?"
The boy opened his mouth, shaping words, but making no sound. Marje moved closer to hear what he was attempting to say. In a harsh whisper, the Missyl spoke haltingly. "I am lost. I seek the border between my world and yours. I regret any fear I have caused for I wish no harm to your people."
The Missyl gazed at Marje with eyes of the palest grey that reached into her heart and captured it. Marje was an only child who was forever bringing home stray animals to care for; this lonely being was just another stray. She reached towards the frail-looking boy, wanting to hold him close and protect him from harm.
The Missyl shrank from the girl's touch, but not before her hand had brushed his shoulder. A jolt like a fieldbeast's kick surged through her arm and she gasped in pain.
"Do not touch me," the creature rasped. "I am not made of the same stuff as you. My people were never meant to mix with yours."
Deep sadness and loneliness washed in waves over the girl.
"Help me, please. I must go back where I belong."
Marje rubbed her arm and flexed her numb fingers. Feeling was slowly prickling back into the limb.
"Of course I'll help, but how am I to find it? The border between our land and yours is invisible. You shouldn't have been able to pass through. At least, that's what I've always been told."
A flicker of guilt flashed across the flat face. "I was warned to stay away but did not listen. The border was there; I was there. I wanted to see what was beyond. I opened a hole in the border and fell through." The boy sighed regretfully. "Now I have seen what is beyond and I am lost."
"That's what comes of not listening to your elders," Marje retorted. "You said there's a hole in the border? How are we supposed to find it if we can't see it?"
The Missyl stared at her blankly. Obviously he didn't have a clue.
"You don't know, do you?" she sighed. "I'll have to ask around. There must be someone who knows." The sound of approaching footsteps prompted Marje to snap, "Quick, hide! My father's coming. He mustn't see you."
Although she was expecting it, Marje couldn't repress a gasp of amazement when the boy's body appeared to melt into a misty presence that shot towards the window and blended cleverly with the flower pattern of the curtain. Marje greeted her father with a smile when he entered the room.
"Still up, lass? Thought you would have been asleep long ago." Devin ruffled his daughter's hair fondly. "What has been keeping you up so late?"
"I've been finishing my festival dress, Father." Marje proudly held up the skirt for her father's inspection. "See! It's nearly finished."
Devin looked carefully at the proffered garment. "It's beautiful, lass. You'll be the prettiest there. Off to bed now, you can finish it in the morning."
Marje laid the skirt down and turned to her father. "Father, what do you know about the borders of our land?"
Devin raised his eyebrows in surprise at his daughter's question. "Only as much as any other man, I suppose. Why would you ask that?"
"Oh, just curious," she replied. "They are saying in the town that a Missyl came through the border and I was wondering where that border might be. Do you know where it is?"
Devin shook his head. "No, Marje. As I understand it, those borders shift about. Only the Silver Ones know where they lie. They were talking about a Missyl in the town this morning, but it's probably just a rumour. Don't you worry your head about it, lass," Devin gave his daughter a hug. "Just you go on to bed and get a night's sleep."
Marje bid her father good night, and with a fleeting look at the curtain, she padded down the hall to her room. Tomorrow would be soon enough to work out a plan to search for the elusive border.