I had intended this seventh chapter of the Lindy novel to be a kind of Christmas gift to those who are following the story, but I find myself a little behind my intentions as I always do, so I offer it instead for New Year’s. Comments and criticisms are welcome as always, even if it is a gift, and those who are new to the story can find the beginning at Chapter One.
In Which A Dinner Is Held And A Decision Is Made
Lindy was so preoccupied with what Alisdair had said that she followed him across what had been a mostly empty room without even noticing that it was no longer mostly empty, not until she was startled to hear noises coming from behind her. She turned to see that the room was now full of tables and that there were people going here and there among them, arranging flowers or setting glasses or placing chairs or doing any number of other things. She never actually saw anyone come up the stairs, and there were no other doors to the hall that she could find, but people kept coming and going somehow, appearing and disappearing, mingling around the tables, walking and talking in small groups.
Other than Clinton, who seemed to be supervising the arrangement of the furniture, and Moe, who was setting baskets of bread on the tables, Lindy recognized only Cleanna, the bird-woman who had flown into the kitchen that morning. The others were a bewildering mixture of the common and the strange. There were those who looked like average people, even if they turned out to be quite different after all, people like Moe and Clinton and Cleanna, but there were also those who looked unlike anything that Lindy had ever seen. She could guess about some of them from her storybooks, like the centaur and the dryad, but there were many that she had never found in any book. There was a tall woman with the head of a white leopard, and there was a bear-like animal with a body all of fire, and there was a huge man with golden eyes and skin like polished ebony, and countless others. Wherever she turned, someone or something new kept appearing or changing or disappearing, and Lindy began to wonder whether anything in the house ever stayed the same for a minute at a time.
Then somebody put a case of small forks in her hands, and Lindy found herself helping to set the tables, joining the chaos of preparations that seemed to be directed by everyone in general and nobody in particular but that was still managing somehow to get things accomplished. Faster than she would have thought possible, the tables had all been set and the food had all been brought and the seats had all been filled. Lindy had only just enough time to find her own seat, which Alisdair had kept beside him especially for her, and then everyone began to sing a kind of prayer together. It had many melodies and words in many different languages, but there was still something familiar about it, and by the time it was ending Lindy was almost but not quite singing along with a melody of her own.
The lights dimmed as everyone began to eat, and even the fire in the great hearth burned lower, but the softer light was filled with many voices, mingling and joining, rising and receding, like the sound of leaves when the wind is gusting. It seemed as though everyone there had known each other from years before but had not seen each other for a long time, and so they were all trying to catch up with everyone else all at once. It was a little overwhelming at first, but the talking was so happy and so mixed with laughter that Lindy soon felt quite at home, as if she was sitting with her family for Christmas dinner or Easter breakfast at her Grandfather’s house.
The food was all good and simple stuff, and there was so much of it that Lindy knew right away that she would not be able even to try it all. She had some broccoli soup with a thick slice of fresh bread, and then some roast chicken, and mashed potatoes mixed with garlic and chives, and carrots in maple syrup, and green beans with toasted almonds, and then a slice of cake that tasted like orange and nutmeg and cloves.
As she finished her cake, Lindy thought that she was fuller and more contented than she had ever been, and the conversations around her began to sound contended too, slowing and and softening as the coffee and the tea were served. Someone brought her a hot chocolate without her even asking. It was very strong and bitter, with the taste of chili peppers in the cocoa, but somehow just what she wanted. She laid her head on her arm and closed her eyes and knew that everything was as it should be. The whole house felt like an old man who has eaten his fill and is now leaning back in his chair to have a chat with an old friend. Everyone, she thought, was satisfied and happy and ready for a little nap.
Just as Lindy was about to fall asleep altogether, there was a sudden hush, and the lights began to burn more brightly, and she opened her eyes to see Alisdair standing at the head of the great table with all its empty seats. He bowed to the hall, then sat in his chair and placed his crown on the table before him. There was a moment or so of silence, and the whole hall seemed to be waiting together, and then, one by one, people began to stand and greet the assembly. There did not seem to be any pattern to the speakers that Lindy could see. There was nobody to introduce them. They just stood in their own time, and then they would take on their true forms, and the walls behind them would be filled with the most marvelous sights.
The first speaker was a little old lady with the smoothest hands that Lindy had ever seen, and she became a hummingbird as she spoke, and behind her there appeared plants that seemed to float on the air like lily pads on the water, and tiny birds flitted among them from nest to nest. Lindy could not hear the songs that they were singing, but she knew that the air would be filled with the beating of a thousand small wings, and that the beating of the wings would make a kind of music unlike any that mere throats could make.
The next was a young man, as tall as Moe but broad and stern, and when he stood he became larger still, until his head was among the rafters, and his voice came from every corner of the room. Behind his vast body, vaster mountains appeared, their peaks worked into towers that reached even further skyward, massive and solid and unmovable.
A long-limbed and long haired man spoke next, his face at once both worn and youthful, and he changed into a centaur, shaggy-hoofed and broadly muscled, as imposing in his way as the giant. The walls behind him became endless forests and plains, one leading to another beneath stars that shone as brightly as lamps in the sky.
One by one, all the guests rose, hundreds in all, and they took their true forms, and they spoke in their true languages, and they showed their true homes. Lindy could not understand their words, but she could understand their meaning, and she was surprised at what they said. She thought that they would speak of Khurshid and what he was doing to the arch, but they spoke only greetings, one after the other as the night drew ever closer to day, greetings on behalf of their peoples and on behalf of their worlds, and to Lindy’s surprise, she never grew tired of them. They were like a kind of song, soloist after soloist, each taking up the music where the last had left it. The music was not just in the words, though the words were very beautiful. It was also in the people and in their homes and in their greetings of one another, like loved ones long separated and joyfully reunited.
At last, as the first rays of sunshine were glinting off the highest windows, the last speaker finished his greeting, and a silence fell over the hall. What would they do now, Lindy wondered? If they had spent this long just greeting each other, how long would it take them to make a decision about something as important as Khurshid and the arch? Would they be here for days?
Then Alisdair stood, and he placed his crown back on his head, and he opened his arms as if inviting the whole of the hall into his embrace. “You are all well greeted,” he said, “and I am strengthened by our common will. Tomorrow, I will pass through the arch to earth to see what can be done to undo the work of Khurshid’s servants. May the God of heaven and the gods of all the worlds add their blessings to yours.”
Lindy could not see how any decision had been made at all, and she was a bit frustrated because everything was so confusing, and she was a bit worried because Alisdair had said that he was going away, and she was a bit disappointed because nobody had said anything about how to get her back home, and all of these little bits of emotion began to undo all the happiness and contentment that she had been feeling during the dinner and the greetings. Though she knew that she was not being quite fair, she began to feel more and more lonely and even a little angry as she sat in her chair and waited for someone to take notice of her and tell her what was going on. Everyone else seemed satisfied with what Alisdair had said, exchanging farewells and departing as mysteriously as they had gathered, but Lindy just sat there feeling lonelier and angrier and more sorry for herself.
When the last of the guests had finally left the hall, Alisdair came and took Lindy by the hand, and she let him lead her toward the fireplace. She was hoping that he might explain things to her like he had done before, and she was trying to think what it was that she should ask him first, but before she could ask anything at all, she found that they had suddenly appeared in the little hallway that led to her room. She was startled, and she was a little angry at being startled, and she was a little more angry because it was just another thing about the house that she could not seem to understand, and she was even more angry because she had been sitting for so long letting herself feel lonely and upset, and so she behaved much more rudely than you or I would have expected from a girl who was usually so polite.
“I want to know what’s going on,” she demanded, pulling her hand from Alisdair’s and stopping in the hall, so that he had to stop himself and turn back to her. “Those people just said ‘hello’ all night long, and now you’re going somewhere, and you’re taking me back to my room, but I can’t even find my way to the kitchen from there, or even a bathroom, and I don’t even know what day it is anymore.”
Alisdair looked confused for a moment, as though he had been thinking about something very different, and then he laughed softly. “I’m sorry,” he said, and he sounded as if he really was. “I was forgetting that you don’t know your way around The Crofts yet.” He reached down and took her hand again. “This house doesn’t work like other houses, you see. You don’t need to know the way to get where you’re going. You just have to think about being there, and then you’ll be there, around the next corner or through the next door. That’s how we came down here from the hall just now. Let me show you.”
He opened the door to what should have been her room, but Lindy could see that there was no bed or dresser behind it, no mirror or picture, only the kitchen, just as she had seen it first. Alisdair closed and then opened the door again, so that it led once more into the bedroom that Lindy remembered. She was still not at all sure what Alisdair had just done or how he had done it, but he seemed to think that his demonstration had been more than adequate to explain things, and he went on without giving her a chance to ask any more about it.
“As for what day it is,” he continued, “I think I’ve already told you that we’re between times here in The Crofts, but a great feast like we had tonight has a strange kind of time all its own. Time waits during a great feast, you might say. It’s the only way that people from all the worlds can come together at the same moment. So really, in the time of this place, it’s only late evening on the first day you arrived. You came. Then you napped for an hour or so. Then you had tea with me. Then everything paused for the great feast. And now, you’re going to bed so you can be rested to see me off tomorrow morning. Does that make a little more sense of things?”
“But when,” said Lindy, feeling a little foolish now for her outburst, “did everyone agree that you should go? Nobody said anything about Khurshid or the arch or anything else.”
Alisdair smiled. “They didn’t need to say anything. All they had to say was that they would help each other and help me, whatever it was that I decided to do, and that’s what they said with their greetings. Some of them might have preferred another plan perhaps, but it wasn’t their decision to make. It was mine. Their only decision was either to help me or not.”
“But what if you made the wrong decision?”
“Then I’ll have made the wrong decision. But any decision might be the wrong one, and no amount of arguing or discussion tonight would have changed that. It fell to me to make the decision, and after I asked the advise of some people whose opinions I trust, I made it, right or wrong. The people gathered tonight to say that they would help me, even though they didn’t yet know what decision I would make. That was their choice, and I’m very glad to know that they’re all supporting in me in what I have to do.”
Lindy was calmer now, and she was beginning to feel embarrassed about how she had behaved, but there was still so much that was confusing her. “I’m sorry that I was rude,” she said. “It’s just that I have no idea what’s going on. I mean, you say that you have this thing to do, but nobody says what it is. It’s like everyone else knows a secret language, and I’m the only one who doesn’t get it.”
“I see,” said Alisdair. He led Lindy into her bedroom and leaned against the dresser while she sat on the edge of her bed. “Let me try to explain. One of the wise women who came tonight has learned that the traitor kings were able to cross the great river because Khurshid sent them with the arch somehow, and it seems that Khurshid has also sent some of them into the world that you and I call home, into the Earth. We think he sent them along with me when I went to Owen House this morning and you saw me coming through the arch. That’s when I first felt something wrong.”
He sighed and stood again and walked to the window. “We’re not sure exactly how Khurshid is doing these things, but however it happened, some of the traitor kings are now in our world, and they will be working to free their master, so I must go and prevent them.”
“But what about the house? Won’t the traitor kings just attack again if you go?”
“Perhaps, though I have my reasons for doubting it. If they do, we will be much better prepared. The Crofts is not defenseless when I am gone, though it is true that we are both stronger when we are together.”
“And what if something happens to you?”
“It’s always possible that something will happen to us, no matter what we’re doing, but this shouldn’t keep us from doing what we must. We shouldn’t be rash, of course, but neither should we be afraid. We can only do what is asked of us as best we can, even when it might be dangerous. Maybe especially then.”
Lindy wanted to ask more, but she was suddenly very tired. “Sleep,” said Alisdair. “Perhaps what happens tomorrow will explain some things, and you must be awake in time to see it.” He bowed a little, just like Mister Hat used to do, and then he closed the door behind him.