Miranda returned the metal objects to the secret compartment while Muriel rewound the scroll. Once Muriel was finished with the scroll, Miranda put the drawers and their contents back into the cabinet. She replaced the large jar, which held the envelopes of seeds, back in the side compartment of the chest. All the jars fit tightly enough in their places that Miranda was not worried about any damaging effect transporting them might have. She said to Muriel, “I wish we had some rope or straps to tie it so we could share carrying it.”
Muriel took a round mat from her pocket. It was a coil of fine but strong rope. Muriel gave instructions as she played out the rope to Miranda. They made a harness for the cabinet and a handle for each of them to hold the chest so they could carry it between them.
As they picked up the chest, ready to leave the chamber, the cat bounded ahead up the path beside the stairs. As Muriel headed toward the base of the stairs, Miranda’s eye caught something glinting above the doorway. She held back.
Muriel tugged on the chest’s rope but then turned to see Miranda staring up at something above the entrance. “What is it, dear?”
“A mask, a gold and green mask. The shiniest mask I’ve ever seen.”
Muriel turned and re-entered the chamber and looked up at the image. Her hand moved involuntarily to her throat. She muttered to herself. She turned, looking systematically around the ceiling of the chamber. “There’s another,” she pointed. Miranda looked up at a silver and blue visage.
By then, the cougar was far enough up the passage that he was out of sight. “I wonder if we should take these masks, Muriel mused. ”No, we’ll have to come back. I do believe we are meant to take the chest.”
Miranda didn’t understand what gave Muriel that notion but she was relieved that the older woman sounded so confident.
“We must hurry to catch the cougar.”
They walked as quickly as they could up the steps. Muriel took many of them two at a time. As the slope tapered off and the steps ended they could see the cougar’s outline against the creamy wall. “There he is, Miranda. Thank goodness.”
The cat was turned facing them, the end of his tail waving gently. He led them through the passageway past the darkest zone and back into the dimly lit outer cave. They shuffled along the ledge and then heaved and shoved the cabinet up over the huge rock steps. When they gained the top of the rockfall they noticed the light in the forest was much dimmer. Miranda was frightened. They hurried after the cougar who was trotting ahead of them. Carrying the chest between them made it awkward to jog but they both felt they must.
Ahead at the edge of the path where the ferns grew suddenly shorter Miranda thought she saw a shape moving. Muriel must have seen it too but the cougar had just run by it. The shape was straightening up. As they drew close, it became clear it was the figure of a wizened old woman who spoke emphatically in a low, loud crackly voice, “That chest is mine.”
“We have claimed it.” Muriel answered. She tried to brush past the old woman but she tripped on the staff the old woman had shoved across the path. She caught herself and did not fall but she let her end of the chest drop. Miranda hauled up on her end of the rope harness with all her strength to keep the chest from hitting the ground. She was able to save it.
The old woman spoke again. “No one takes my chest.”
Muriel answered, in a deep strong voice. “Miranda and I have been sent for it.”
Miranda was impressed with Muriel’s courage.
The old woman shifted and leaned on her staff which she now held upright beside her. “Only one human is entitled to that chest. If you be she, you may have it.” The old woman’s voice was rough.
“I be she.”
“How must I prove it?”, Muriel asked.
“If you are the one, you will know,” the old woman answered.
Muriel hesitated and Miranda felt panic growing in her own body. Muriel was fumbling in the pocket at her breast. Miranda held her breath hoping that Muriel had some inspiration.
“I have the key,” she said, brandishing the key from the chest.
Miranda had not noticed that Muriel had retained it.
The old woman grabbed for the key but Muriel held it out of her reach. Muriel spoke. “You know that I’m entitled to the chest. Let us pass.”
The old woman lifted up her head and wailed the lowest, most mournful, keening sound Miranda had ever heard. The cougar had returned to be near the three women. Muriel again tried to push by the old woman but the woman again held her staff across the path. “Tell me what the key is for,” she demanded. “If that you know, I will let you pass.”
Miranda despaired. How could Muriel know that. They hadn’t discussed it though so maybe she did. Muriel had known enough to bring the key along, rather than replace it in the secret chamber of the chest.
Muriel drew a deep breath as she stared directly into the old woman’s face. Muriel spoke each word separately as if waiting for each one to come from some hidden depth within her. Each word resounded in the forest as if each were part of a spell she cast.
“The key, Honoba . . . “
“Do not name me here, you witch,” the old woman hissed.
Muriel did not flinch. She repeated, “The key, Honoba, opens . . .”
Miranda held her breath for fear Muriel would fail them now.
Muriel swung her free hand out to her side dramatically, as she continued speaking, “The”. She took a quick noisy breath before speaking the next word, “Door”.
Miranda saw that the old woman was cringing although “door” seemed a predictable response to Miranda.
Muriel continued speaking in her husky low voice, “Of your theatre”
The old woman screamed, “Aiii eeee”. The old woman continued in a wail. She gasped for breath and slumped down to the ground still clasping her staff. “You. You”, she shouted, pointing the first gnarled finger of her free hand at Muriel. “You are indeed the mage of the other world. You are Muriel, are you not? And she,” She pointed to Miranda, “She is your apprentice. I recognize you. Go go. Hurry. Out of my sight.” She made a dismissive gesture before dropping her head and leaning her weight against her staff which she now held tight with both hands.
Miranda’s impulse was to stoop to comfort her. Muriel must have sensed this impulse for she spoke sharply to Miranda, “No, Miranda, come. Hand me the rope.”
Miranda glanced back at the old woman as they walked down the path toward the light of the open sea which beckoned beyond the edge of the forest. She worried if Muriel still had the key and if their boat would be there, at the edge of the beach where they had left it. The cougar trotted ahead. He bounded over the logs at the edge of the forest and loped over to the green boat.
Miranda had not realized how pleased she would be to see it again. They swung the cabinet up over the gunwales and lowered it into the middle of the boat. Muriel dragged on the boat’s stern. As they got it to the water’s edge, she climbed in and left the rest of the launching to Miranda. Miranda pushed the boat the rest of the way into the sea and clambered in.
The cougar was sitting watching them sail away. Muriel called out their thanks to him. Miranda rowed silently for a few moments and then asked Muriel how she had known the things to do and say. Muriel hushed her and told her to keep on rowing. The water was absolutely still. No breeze stirred to assist their journey away from the island. There was no point in unfurling the sail.
Miranda rowed silently. The oars became heavy in Miranda’s arms and she stopped to rest for a moment, leaning forward over them.
When she looked up, she was sitting in her study across the room from Muriel. “How . . .”, she started to ask.
Muriel shushed her by putting her finger to her lip.
Part 1 of this story is to be found here.
Part 2 of this story is here.
Or follow the story on its own page here.