Sunday, September 25, 2005

 

the child, one hundred one


They walked all night, and into the grey of morning. Forest kept casting glances behind them, apparently expecting at any time for the troop of guards to appear, pursuing them. 'Shouldn't we be covering our trail?' he blurted out at last. 'Once they start tracking us...'

'There's not a man among them that could read a track,' said their guide with confidence.

'There are twelve of us,' Forest countered. 'A blind man could read our trail! The wake we're leaving behind us, it probably looks like an elephant came through here.'

'They won't be following us.' And that was Mac speaking. 'Not tonight, and not tomorrow either.'

'How do you know that?' said Forest. 'How can you be sure?'

But Mac only smiled.

Their guide was leading them southward. From the spot where he had cached their stuff, he had gone a bit uphill on that eastward mountain before striking for the south. After a couple of hours, he felt safe enough to bring them back down to the main path along the valley floor.

It was a relief, to walk here where it was easier. They were getting so tired.

As the dawn was gradually waking up in the east, their guide's steps slowed. Twice he stopped entirely, frowning at the left side of the trail.

'What's wrong?' asked Lucy.

The man peered behind, and then ahead. 'I don't think I've missed it,' he muttered, mostly to himself.

'Missed what?'

But his only answer was to wave them forward again.

On they went, footsore and weary. Forest was all but carrying James now, and both Jack and Linda looked like sleepwalkers. Malachi had long since set Joy on her own feet to walk for herself. But now he stopped and offered to carry her again.

'I can do it,' she answered, her voice dull and vague. 'Don't worry about... Oh!'

There was such a complete change in Joy's tone when she said the word 'Oh!' that Starr stopped and looked at her. The girl's eyes were radiant in the early dawn as she pointed eagerly. 'Look at that! I didn't know butterflies came out so early. Or is it a moth?'

Whatever it was, it had two of the largest, most shimmering white wings of any butterfly or moth that any of them had ever seen. Commanding their rapt attention, the beautiful creature fluttered and floated along, coming to rest at last, its wings opening and closing lazily, in the leaves of a gnarled old tree alongside the path.

There was something about that tree...

'Apples!' cried Joy. 'Look at the beautiful apples!'

'Apples!' cried their guide. 'This is the place!' And he led them off the path and over to the tree.

'See there?' he said, pointing beyond the tree. And, yes, vaguely seen, there was a path back there. 'That's the way to the dungeons. It's another couple of hours' walk...' Groans met that statement. '...so I suggest we gather some of these apples to eat on the way. They'll refresh us.'

And so they did. Some of the group were too worn out to pick apples, so the others picked enough for them all. 'But no throwing down apple cores,' their guide cautioned. 'Those guards may not know how to track, but even blind, they could figure out what an apple core along the trail means.'

Stone happened to be looking at Mac just then, and saw the brief smile that crossed the angel's face. What was that about? the man wondered.

Their brief rest over, they trekked on. Not far past the apple tree, the path opened wide. So wide was it that, for Starr at least, the way gave her an eerie feeling in her middle. It shouldn't be this wide, she thought. And there was - something - to the air that frightened her.

'What's wrong?' Stone's arm wrapped round her, comforting her.

'I don't like this,' she murmured.

He nodded. 'I feel it too. It's that we're getting closer to the dungeons, I'd say.' He sniffed the air and grimaced. 'I'm beginning to smell the old place for sure,' he quipped.

She sniffed too, but shrugged. 'I don't notice anything,' she said. 'Maybe your nose works better than mine.'

'Maybe so,' he agreed.

The rim of the sun was just breaking, blindingly, over the rim of the world ahead of them when their guide turned aside off the path again. Now he was leading them straight uphill, and at a lung-burning pace too.

'Can't we stop?' Lucy complained.

'Nearly there,' said the twelfth man.

'No offense,' said Jack, 'but I don't remember the enemy's fortress being up on top of any mountain.'

'It isn't,' the guide replied. 'It's over there,' and he waved toward the east, to the plain beyond the mountains entirely. 'But up here, there's... if I can find it again. I found it when I first came to scout out the dungeons, and I thought it would be useful then. Just a little way up here, and the entrance is hard to see... Ah!' Stopping and turning to the others, he said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to your lodgings. We can rest here, and then talk later about all that I've learned while I've been waiting for you. Go in, go in!'

It was a cave. Dangling ivy tendrils obscured the entrance. Inside, it was somewhat damp and musty. But it was a place to lie down and sleep, and in gratitude and exhaustion, that's exactly what they did.

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