Talespinning Tuesday: Shard, Chapter four

Frozen by indecision,
fears burrow deep,
conceal, no admission,
alone, I weep,
where is my white knight,
to slay the dragon I face?
When will my courage come to light,
to save me from this gelid place?

Elsa bent and picked up the crane. She was surprised to find that the words were written underneath the folds. In moments, she had transmuted the crane into its original sheet form. Printed on the plain in simple script was one word: HOPE. Elsa stared at the paper, her bewilderment almost a palpable force within the room. She began to search the room with her eyes, trying to find some context with which the message might make sense. Her eyes roamed like eagles searching for prey, until they settled upon the unlocked door.
Was this the little girl’s message? She thought, Hope resides on the other side?
Though she would not move any closer, she examined the door. It was solidly built but rather looked rather mundane as it stood sentry to the doorway. “You are a very ordinary, without anything that would catch the eye,” she said aloud to the door, “Then why do you make a shiver travel the length of my spine? Why does my stomach twist into knots every time I glance your way? Can you tell me that door?”
“You really should quit blaming the door,” an uninterested voice said, nearly making Elsa faint from fright. On the bedside, a bored tabby cat had appeared, grooming itself. While it washed itself, the cat regarded Elsa with vivid green eyes that seemed to give off their own glow.
“Am I to be haunted by apparitions? Is this my lot? Street woman, wandering cowboys, evil twins, little girls with too much wisdom and now? A talking cat? I find the length and breadth of this state of affairs most tiresome and vexing. So, please just tell me whatever it is that you wish to say without being so bothersome and cryptic!” Elsa said in a huff.
The cat paused a moment in his bathing, caught her in his regard and said, “I thought I just did. I came by for a comfy seat where I can clean myself and I hear this girl caterwauling at a door and it all seemed very tiresome, so I gave you my two bits.”
“And there isn’t any more you wish to say? No bits of wisdom or pieces of knowledge that you want to drop on me?”
The tabby gave her a look usually reserved streetside apocalyptic prophets. “No,” it said, “I just think you should quit blaming a door for your fear of what’s on the other side. You should just own your fear and do what you want.”
“Why must you and all the other people I meet deliver your messages so enigmatically? Can’t you just say what you want straight? Are you telling me I should go through the door?”
“I’m not being mysterious, woman!?!” the cat said, exasperated. “Go through the door, don’t go through the door, it’s your decision. Why are you listening for portents and the like to help you decide whether you should do something? Sit here for all I care! You have gotten quite good at combing your hair,” the cat finished, miming a stupidly blank face and running its paw through its fur.
“You are a most horridly obnoxious feline!” Elsa said, her face turning red in anger, “Why, I have a mind to strike you, you little furred cur!”
The cat regarded her red-faced fury and replied, “Didn’t the little one tell you to watch which one us you feed?”
Elsa stamped her dainty foot in frustration. “Why must you all do this to me?” she wailed.
“Why do you always believe we are doing something to you? I just said quit blaming random doors for your shortcomings and fears and you launch into a tirade about the people you meet and then lump me in with them. Between the two of us, I can tell you which is the infuriating one.”
Elsa took a moment and calmed herself visibly. “I’m arguing with a cat. What am I doing?” she said to the air then turned to the tabby and continued, “I will be taking my leave, Mr. Cat, I hope you have a good day!” Her quick and clipped tone left no doubt that she wished the cat anything but a good day.
She strode angrily to the door. She reached for the knob but found her hand immobilized mere inches from grasping it. She threw a glance over her shoulder and saw the cat watching her with quietly amused regard. This solidified her resolve and her hand came unglued. The handle felt cold in her hand but she shook off any last reservations and turned the knob and pulled with all her might. She stumbled for a moment when there was no resistance. Her breath caught in her throat when she felt herself come unstuck from reality and began to fall. It wasn’t like the floor was no longer there, the floor was there but now her body did not find it an impediment from falling.
As she fell, Elsa saw two huge green eyes blink into existence, tracking her fall. A giant, whiskered mouth ripped its way into reality below the orbs, a grimalkin-esque grin evident. The rest of the tabby’s face fell into place and it was obvious it was laughing at Elsa. “Why do you let other’s make your decisions for you? You fed your anger and did the predictable thing,” the cat said, chuffing in amusement, “Maybe next time, you’ll think before you grab at ominous door handles. Oh, and if you see the White Rabbit, tell him he still owes me dinner. Tuna. White Albacore.”
“Caaaaaaatttt!!!! Pllllleeeaaassseee hhhhheeeeelllllpppp mmmmmeeeeee!!!!” Elsa cried desperately as she fell but the tabby had already faded from existence.
It felt to Elsa as if she had fallen for hours but she had no way of knowing exactly how long she fell. There was no obvious transition, just one moment she was freefalling and the next she was floating like a leaf. When her feet touched the ground she felt herself become momentarily nauseous and discombobulated.
“Oi! Pretty lady! You come to peep the fighting match of the century? Regular ol’ David vs. Goliath, it is,” the voice startled a very disoriented Elsa.
Elsa wheeled to see a man standing in a fairground ticket booth in front of large circus tent. The man was a bit unsavory to Elsa’s eye. He wore a raggedy top hat over a mop of dirty brown hair, suspenders and a neck scarf over a dingy white button-up that now dwelt more in the realm of grey. He had a permanent 5 o’clock shadow and his beady eyes were too close together in his round face. He gave her a conspiratorial smile and a wink (she noted he was missing a tooth), hooked his thumbs into his suspenders and said, “Your beauty has convinced me to offer you a discounted rate. Two bits, even though, I swear upon me dead nan, I’ll be losing a bit a coin off the deal.”
“How’s that?”
“How’s what?”
“How are you losing money on the deal?”
“Well, because it’s so cheap!”
Elsa eyed the rickety ticket booth and the tattered condition of the circus tent critically. “If I were to guess, you don’t seem to have much overhead, if any at all, so making any money, even a little bit would definitely not be losing money.”
“Ohhh, we have a smart one ‘ere, don’t we?” the barker said in his swarmy accent. “You’ve got a ‘ead on you, doncha? Well, maybe I jus’ happened upon this place and couldn’t pass up a good deal. But maybe you just go inside, free of charge, and never mention the fact that I am charging an unfair price for a non-existent product. Sound fair?”
“That seems a rather dishonest thing to do.”
“It is, isn’t it?” the barker said, stepping out of the ticket booth, “We agreed then, are we?” He did not wait for Elsa’s reply and ushered her through the tent entrance.
As Elsa entered the tent, she felt a... shift in reality. She could no longer feel the circus tent behind her nor could she see it anywhere before her. She stood on a rocky plain littered with marks of devastation. Before her was an armored figure battling furiously with a creature of smoke and shadow, it's eyes a toxic neon green that disappeared and reappeared on different parts of the creature's body.
The knight ducked a smoky tendril as it whipped at the knight's head. Elsa was sure that, though the tendril looked ephemeral, it would strike solidly if it were allowed to connect. The knight dove into a sidelong roll to avoid the backswing and landed closer to the body of the creature. The armored figure's blade shot up, held in a double handed grip, and the wispy creature's body parted before its keen edge. The shadow began to wail as the knight continued to rise, the blade moving up along the belly of the beast. The monster dissolved as the sword made its way through its shadow stuff until all that was left were to putrid green eyes floating in the air. The eyes regarded Elsa and the knight balefully for a moment before blinking out of existence.
The knight turned to Elsa. Elsa was startled to see flowing red hair as the knight sheathed her sword then doffed her helmet. “M'lady,” the red haired warrior said in a rough but feminine voice, “you walk a most dire path. If I may offer my services, I would gladly escort you from this place.”
Elsa was still stunned at the revelation that the knight was a woman. “That beast, that most horrible of creations! What was it?”
“It is the darkness within given form in shadow and smoke, m'lady. Fear given eyes and the semblance of life. I'm sure if this was some grand tale it would have a name that would inspire fear like Jabberwocky or Nazgul. But this thing has no need of grandiose title for it is fearful enough on its own,” the red haired woman replied.
“You speak as if you have not slain it.”
“I have not, m'lady, merely driven it off for a time. Surprisingly easy this time. I am usually the worst for wear after our confrontations. It is lucky I have not taken up with Pride for she is a hard one to lose. I would find it necessary to swagger around and crow about how the monster feared my awesome blade. When the truth of the matter is that it was scared off when you showed up.”
“Aye, m'lady, it well remembers the many defeats you and I have handed it and was unprepared for your appearance during our bout.”
“Why, that's just ludicrous. I've never picked up a sword, or any other weapon for that matter, in my life.”
“M'lady, swords are the weakest of weapons at your disposal and creatures such as that are oft times not defeated through force of arms,” the ginger knight sat down heavily upon a convenient rock.
“It's still impossible. We have never met before today and so we could not have fought and defeated said monster countless times.”
The red haired lass gave Elsa a wan smile and said, “We've met before, many times, m'lady. I've been around since you were a small child. You had more need of me then than you do now.”
“This is absolutely absurd. Everyone knows me but me. I think I would remember... remember knowing...” Elsa swooned as she was ambushed.
She sat in a hospital bed watching her mother speak to the doctor in low tones. It was obvious from how she stood that whatever the doctor was telling her was distressing her greatly. Elsa did not like the man. Not only was he distressing her mother but she absolutely detested needles and he seemed to enjoy torturing her with them. It was all for this test or that but Elsa knew the man took perverse pleasure in assigning her said tests.
As Elsa listened the only word she could make out in the conversation was cancer. She didn't know what that was but understood that it was something to be hated when her mother immediately started to cry. The word itself felt heavy to Elsa, as if it weighed her down somehow.
She regained herself as the knight was gently leading her to sit upon the rock. Elsa looked up, bewildered for a moment and said, “I had cancer.” Elsa tasted the word and it burned like poison on her tongue.
“Yes, you did.”
“But I survived.”
“Yes, you did.”
“I'm a survivor,” Elsa said, drawing strength from those words. Her back straightened, having bowed to the great weight of the memory, and she met the knight's eyes. “I'm a survivor,” she repeated.
“Yes, you are,” the knight said simply, offering Elsa a gentle smile, “I was with you then, helping you to greet each day. I was their every time you became nauseous from the chemotherapy. I was there every time it beat you down to help you stand and giving you that little push that made you grit your teeth and lean forward.”
“I don't remember.”
“I was there nonetheless,” she said, proffering her arm to Elsa, “Shall we continue down the path you have set yourself upon, m'lady?”
Elsa searched the woman's eyes and asked, “Why have you helped me and why do you help me still?”
“We each do what we know to do. I know how to pick you up when you have fallen down. I give you the necessary push forward when you would otherwise stay stationary. I help you face those things that you fear to face.”
Elsa sighed softly. “Riddles again. Is that always the way with you people,” the knight shrugged non-commitedly, “Well,” Elsa took the knight's offered arm,”at least tell me your name so that I may call you something. Otherwise this will be a most awkward journey.”
“I have many names, m'lady, but Joan may most appropriate considering.”
“Like Joan of Arc? The maid of Orleans?”
“More than less, yes. I am made in her likeness.”
Elsa smirked. “But you're not French.”
“Nor do I believe she had red hair or was a chevalier. I may bear her name but it does not stop me from being other things. If you are feeling better, we should start moving. We do not want to be here after dark.”

Elsa followed Joan across the rocky plain. The path they were to walk looked treacherous at the best of times but Elsa didn't mind. Being next to Joan seemed to awaken a part of Elsa. She took her first steps down the path with her back straight and more than a little excited.