That's when she issued the challenge. She said, "Greg I'd really like to see you boil down the first three chapters into one. Get them through the drainpipe through the Hallway of Worlds and into Calendria by the end of chapter one."
Gulp. That week I worked really hard and condensed everything down to one longish chapter. Louise could not believe it and I've got her to thank for teaching me how to get a story off the ground quickly. I wound up cutting the entire second chapter. It was hard to do, because it was all about Stig and I liked it. It wasn't necessary, though, so I cut it. Now I'd like to share it with you. Here it is.
“I was hatched many, many years ago, oh let me see—well over four hundred.”
“Yes, well I’m really considered quite young by the standards of my world—merely middle aged. Anyway, I spent my youth in the usual pursuits, many decades of school—an owl is nothing if not well educated—hunting by night with my parents and later, with my friends. Oh yes, what wild times we had then, I must say. Quite the rascals were we, always looking for a bit of excitement. There’s nothing like swooping through the trees at night, with the moon at your back, onto a juicy little field mouse or a blind mole.
“As I grew older, my parents began hinting, and then stating, that I should make something of myself and get a respectable job like my father, who was a most respected judge in the forest’s high court. So I followed in the old bird’s footsteps. It was okay for a while. In fact, if I do say so myself, I acquired the reputation of being a wise and respectable owl—a far cry from the wilder days of my youth. As the years passed I continued to do well for myself, and moved into my own tree, although I was still only in early adulthood.
“But I had soon had enough of that. I was looking for something more. I took to flying by day, something no respectable owl would do, and found that the world was much more interesting than I had imagined. I left my family, job and tree to explore my world. Humans are not numerous where I come from—they live in small tribes and make very little trouble aside from an occasional arrow or two—and we have many of the same animals that are found here as well as others that you would think quite different. I searched many beautiful forests and mountain ranges and flew across oceans and deserts. I explored for many years and met many interesting and intelligent creatures. As is the way with my species I collected a great deal of knowledge until, I daresay, I was the most knowledgeable of my kind, although not, perhaps, the wisest.
“One evening, flying over a part of the world that I was not entirely familiar with, I saw a mountain rising from an otherwise flat landscape. All around was empty and barren—not a creature stirred on the plain below. As I flew toward the mountain for a closer look, I saw a narrow cleft in the rock about five feet high and three feet wide midway up the mountain’s stone slope. Without a second thought as to what I was doing, I flew straight through the cleft. It opened into a cave that was only about five feet wide, but very long. In fact, as I peered into the blackness I could not see the back of it. I landed on damp earth and looked around. The walls and ceiling were rough stone and the floor was dirt. It appeared to be uninhabited. Well, now my curiosity was piqued. I flew toward the back of the cave for a long way, it seemed to go on forever. When I did finally reach the end, I encountered something very strange.
“You would call it a door, but I had never seen one. To me it looked like a large rectangle of wood with a square of some semi transparent material set in the upper half. It looked like I had come to a dead end. What to do? What was this thing? I landed in front of it, and could feel a warm stream of air coming from a crack underneath it. That got my attention—it wasn’t solid. As I looked closer, I could see that the right side of the thing was fastened to the cave wall by two shiny pieces of metal. I had seen metal used in the villages of men, but it was dark and dull, not shiny yellow like these.
“I thought that perhaps this thing was not the end of the cave, but merely a covering for a smaller passage beyond, so I walked up to it and nudged it with my beak. It swung forward slightly—showing me a brief glimpse of some lighted space beyond—and then swung backward, nearly knocking me off my feet. Gaining courage, I took flight and flew at the upper corner of the thing.
“I can tell you that I got a nasty bump on my head, but I got through. I found myself in a long passageway. Directly ahead of me was another wall and a door identical to the one I had just come through. In fact the passage, which ran from my right to left, was lined on both sides with these doors, and seemed to go on in either direction for a great distance. I landed in the hallway and gazed about me, thoroughly puzzled.
“I walked across the passage to the door directly across the way and gave it a hard push with my beak. It swung open a little way, revealing a raging blizzard. A gust of mountain air hit me in the face before the door swung shut. Shivering, I turned back toward my door and froze.
“Next to it, a desk strewn with papers had appeared. At the desk sat a little man with a long white beard. He wore a shapeless brown cap and a rumpled blue robe and sat looking at me through gold-rimmed spectacles perched on the end of his long, pointed nose. His blue eyes twinkled and his mouth wore an amused grin.
“After I had gotten over my shock he said, ‘Hello, master owl. You have arrived precisely on time! Punctuality is a quality that is all too rare these days. Of course, I’ve always found it hard to time these things. I never seem to get here quite as quickly as I would like, and that always makes for a certain amount of confusion. I hope you have not been terribly put out?’
“I was extremely confused, but the manners my mother had drilled into me from the time I was a chick automatically kicked in. ‘Oh no, not too much,’ I said, ‘It’s just that I’m not terribly sure what’s happened. I was exploring a cave and I ran into that wooden thing…’
‘Ah, that’s a door. I’m sorry, that’s how the gateways work. The best way, really, it’s hard when you don’t have hands to push with. If I’d been on time as I’d planned, I would have opened it for you. Oh well, these things happen,’ the old man smiled cheerfully.”
“I studied him in silence as he gazed at me patiently. ‘Where am I?’ I finally asked.
“The old man’s grin widened. ‘You are in the Hallway of Worlds!’ he said proudly, raising his wrinkled hands to indicate the passage. ‘Each one of these doors leads to a different world!’
‘But, there must be thousands of doors. There can’t possibly be that many worlds.’ The doors seemed endless to me.”
‘Millions, actually,’ said the old man. ‘I’m not sure of the exact number. It’s not constant, but it’s definitely in the millions.’
‘Why isn’t it constant?’ I asked.
‘Well, worlds come and go. Some end and some begin,’ he explained.
“I thought about that for a bit. ‘So if I go through a door, I’ll be in a different world?’ I asked.
‘Right you are!’ he said, smiling because I understood, although I didn’t really. ‘But you couldn’t unless I let you into the Hallway.’
‘And you are?’ I asked.
‘I am the Gatekeeper.’
‘You’re the Gatekeeper,’ I echoed, trying to drink it all in. ‘And you oversee the Hallway of Worlds?’
"His eyes gleamed. ‘Oh, I could tell that you were smart, but I wasn’t expecting you to catch on so quickly. Jump up on my desk and I’ll explain.’
“I flew up onto his desk and settled in, ready for a long explanation.
‘As I said, each one of these doors leads to another world. I am in charge of traffic to and from worlds, something that is allowed only when there is a need.’
‘When there is a need?’ I echoed.
‘Yes. These doorways cannot be found by chance. They are found only if I want them to be. It used to be much different,’ he said. ‘There were no doors, no control, only blind openings. Back then, inhabitants from one world would constantly be stumbling into other worlds. It caused a great many problems. Then one day, I had an idea. I created the Hallway of Worlds. I set doors in each world—only a few mind you—and closed up all the other openings. That made it much less confusing and more orderly. Now, only people on Official Business can use the doorways.’
“I had been following him okay up to that point, but that last bit confused me. ‘Official Business?’ I asked. ‘What do you mean by that?’
‘Well, there comes a time in the progress of any world where it seems to hit a snag, so to speak,’ explained the Gatekeeper.
‘A snag?’ I asked. ‘What do you mean by a snag?’
‘Oh, it could be a social development problem or a technology problem, or just a stubborn way of thinking—any major problem where some outside help is needed. It usually takes just a little nudge, really, to get things back on track,’ said the Gatekeeper. ‘Some worlds hit a number of snags over the course of their history.’
“I nodded. ‘And the outside help could be another person, or a donkey, or an owl even?’ I asked.
“His face broke into a smile so big that I thought his eyes would be lost in his cheeks. ‘Exactly my fine feathered friend, exactly!’
“I can tell you, my boy, that was a little much for me to take. Somewhere, there was a world that needed my help. Me, of all creatures. What could I do?
“Actually, it turned out there was quite a bit that I could do. I was scared stiff when the Gatekeeper briefed me on what needed to be done and ushered me through a door. But it turned out to be easier than I had thought. Oh, it was no piece of cake, but I think that the situation was suited to me. After that, he gave me other Assignments, and I’ve been working for him ever since.
“I’ve been to many worlds, but I’m not allowed to discuss what I’ve done on any of them. The Gatekeeper says it’s nobody’s business—everybody has enough problems of their own. Except me, apparently.” Stig gave a wry grin.
Eric was thoughtful after he had heard Stig’s story. He wasn’t exactly sure what it all meant, but he knew that Stig’s presence was important. Had the world hit a snag?