“The ladder,” said Hermes, “is the easiest way in unless you fly.”
“I wish we had a balloon, like the horrible Hazletts,” muttered Nathan.
But already summoned by the knife, the ladder had begun to appear.
At first it was just a shadow, spindly and straight. Then the struts appeared, each different, and many wrapped in winding plants. Gradually, step by step, it became clear until eventually it stood before them, sweeping upwards from the centre of the gravel path. But it was not the ordinary wooden ladder they had expected.
It was impossible to see the top, for it went up and up into the glowering clouds, and where it caught the slanting wisps of sun, it glowed like sudden fire.
“The Ladder of the Veil,” said Hermes, as though introducing an old friend. “It is a long climb, but I shall keep you safe, I swear.”
They all stood at the foot, staring up. The ladder appeared to have no support and stood alone, slanting slightly, and where it touched the ground it rested only lightly on the path.
“Must I?” said Sam.
“No.” Nathan shook his head. “Stay here and look after Mouse and Gosling and Mars Bar and Flop.”
Sam sniffed. “I won’t be a coward. I’m coming. But I won’t go first and I won’t go last.”
“Reckon I’ll go first,” said Alfie, taking a stride forwards.
“And I’ll come last,” said Nathan. “With Hermes to help us all.”
Both hands to the sides, one foot up, Alfie began his climb. The ladder trembled, as though nervous of being touched. But Alfie kept climbing. Close behind, John clambered on, grinning. Alice followed, holding up her skirts, then Peter and then Sam. Finally Nathan climbed, with Hermes hovering beside him. The wind was in their hair and once again the ladder trembled, shivering.
“I think,” said Nathan softly as Hermes spread his wings and began to fly upwards, “this ladder doesn’t like the cold.”
“Much too cold,” said a grumpy voice. “You might have chosen a warmer day.”
Nathan looked up at Hermes, who now flew ahead. “Was that you speaking?” he asked.
Hermes looked back. “Oh not at all,” he said. “That was the ladder.”
With Sam’s small feet on the strut just above his head, Nathan hesitated, looking up, then down, and then ahead. They had not yet climbed far, and the wind was only a hearty breeze. Finally, feeling a little silly, Nathan said softly, “I’m sorry. I mean, you’re wooden. I didn’t expect you to suffer from the cold.”
“People never think of others,” sighed the ladder. “Only think of themselves. Mighty selfish.”
The long narrow sides were now twisting a little, and were covered in fresh green growth like vines, with small green leaves and tiny tufts of grass. Nathan apologised again. “I’m sorry. But at least it’s stopped raining. And you look very warmly dressed.”
“Dressed?” snorted the ladder. “I suppose you’ll want to steal my grapes when you get higher up.”
Nathan was about to promise not to touch the grapes when Alfie shouted down, “Hey, there’s fat juicy black grapes up here. I bin eatin’ loads. Very nice.”
“Sorry,” muttered Nathan to the ladder.
“Don’t do me no good keep apologising,” said the ladder with another tremble. “Get’s boring.”
So Nathan kept quiet.
The grape vine was changing and a thorny bush was gathering strength. Up both sides and twisting out along the struts were huge curved thorns which scratched and hurt. One swiped at Nathan’s leg, and he heard Alice cry out above him.
“Please,” he asked the ladder as politely as he could, “We don’t mean any harm. Honestly. Can you put the thorns away?”
With a vehement shrug which shook the whole ladder and made everyone cling on tighter, it dropped its thorns. They fell away with a clatter and some attractive pink blossom took its place. The perfume was sweet and had a peach-like flavour.
“Satisfied?” demanded the ladder.
“Very nice,” said Nathan at once. “Thank you.”
A short excerpt from chapter one
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THE THREE CULPRIT'S
(It's all their fault)
is a short story, telling how the problems in Lashtang began