He’d find that large, heavy door locked only too often – so he tried not to raise his expectations and, most important, remain unheeded as he went up the long flight of stairs. The adults were engaged in commonplace conversation down below – probably over his grandma’s aromatic, boiling tea and spirits.
Quite as usual, he leaned his full weight upon the loft entrance and pulled down the handle. To his surprise, he found no resistance as he pushed his way. At first all seemed dark – yet at the far end a skylight poured in dim light from a fading winter day. His eyes got eventually used to the scenario though; it was then that shapes, dimensions – even colours showed: they depicted a spacious room, topped by a gabled roof. His grandad’s writing desk lay on his left – a robust, rectangular board made of oak timber supported by stout legs. The ceiling was clad with irregular, crossing beams after the fashion of conspicuous branches of and old yet invisible tree. The bookcase – with the long-awaited collection of fantasy tales – consisted of a basic furnace piece: two-level stacked shelves all along the perimeter of the room. These contained vast arrays of volumes. He felt unsure – ignoring where to start. The bookshelf opposite to him boasted a pile of thick tomes featuring a red cover. Impulsively, he held out the one at the top and deposited it carefully on the desk.
Before he turned on the old-fashioned lamp, he took a sidelong glance at the entrance door, which he had purposefully left ajar. Only then did he take a seat in the throne-like chair and felt his head running wild with excitement at the prospect of new adventures. He’d been bold enough to cross the line into forbidden lands and hoped it would pay off soon enough.
Bestiary of Hazûd was the promising title. He opened up the encyclopaedia-looking book on a worn, yellowish page where a large capital ‘D’ showed. He turned it over and found the illustration: it was a black and white drawing of two symmetrically arranged dragons. These were lying on their fours – their legs finishing in sharp-looking claws. Tails were bent downwards – almost skimming one another. Their wings, in turn, were folded – as if waiting for a sign to unveil. His eyes got immediately attracted by their long, stout necks – boasting a myriad of little scales. Their massive heads were turned upwards at some indefinite point in the sky. Their mouths were partially open and produced long arrow-like tongues. Impressive as all these features were – he found the dragons’ eyes the most shocking: fiery and full of malice. Despite the absence of colour he could easily picture them in gleaming red – conveying, as a whole, the impression of two evil creatures ready to burst out in flames.
At that point the unearthly reek became evident. How long it had been there though, he could not tell. It was unlike anything he’d smelled before – so it was by pure intuition that he realised it was sulphur. He checked his surroundings – should there be a fire starting – but all looked quite the same. He could feel the odour increasing though. He stood, turned around and started to walk off towards the opposite end of the room – whence he thought the stink originated. He stopped halfway through, paralyzed with indescribable fear. In the farthest room corner, he saw two shady, crimson-like glowing spots. As he stared at them, he got the impression they looked back at him with growing rage. This was only made worse when they flickered – as if for a brief wink. He made an attempt at turning, but then a noise of a large, uncanny presence tossing on the floor close by became too audible. He could only close his eyes, hoping – ironically – to wake up back to reality.
A sudden tap on his shoulder startled him. He cried in dismay.
‘Are you okay boy?’ It was grandpa. He let go of the air in his lungs and felt relieved. Then hugged him tighter than a bear – as if there was no tomorrow.
‘Oops mate. You’re squeezing me.’ His grandad checked his face – looking much too pale. ‘It looks like you’ve seen a ghost…or worse! And, by the way, what are you doing up here – have I not told you not to come here solo?’
Grandpa walked back to the desk and spotted the open book. He examined the mighty reptiles closely. Then he looked back at the boy, who remained motionless in the same spot – as if turned into granite. Grandpa took a few steps back to the kid and held him kindly by the arms. There was a strange mix of guilt and fear in his eyes.
‘Mmm… I’ll tell you what: next time you’re over we’ll have a little tour around here. How do you think?’
The kiddie’s eyes lightened up. Looking over his grandpa’s shoulders he checked again for the ominous dragon’s eyes – but saw nothing. Nor did he smell anything amiss.
‘The thing is,’ added grandpa. ‘This place could be big fun. But it needs mastering. After all, you never know what you’ll come across in these books of old’.
To Eamon Sheridan. Great storyteller, and best English master ever.