Tuesday, September 27, 2005


the child, one hundred two

They slept all day, and most of the next night. And woke up hungry, and ate their apples.

'All right, spy,' said Forest, his mouth still full of apple, 'tell us what you've learned.'

They were sitting in a rough circle on the floor of the cave. Morgen was tending to the wounds the guards had inflicted on James, while Mac and Mal saw to any other injuries. Starr, sitting at Stone's side in the shadows towards the back of the cave, noticed that he was continually staring at the twelfth man, the look on his face unreadable.

'Well, to start with,' said the newcomer, 'my name isn't Spy. It's...' A movement at the back of the cave caught his attention. Startled, eyes bulging, he blurted out, 'Stone!'

'Your name's not Stone,' Jack commented. 'His name is Stone. Unless you both have the same name. Which is possible, I suppose. But not very likely. Not with an odd name like Stone. Now, if the name was Jack...'

The twelfth man had risen to his feet and was staring, pointing. 'You! It is you?'

Stone sighed at Starr's side. 'Yes. It's me, Walker.'

Walker? Starr frowned for a second, puzzled. And then her eyes flew open wide. Walker! Stone's old friend. The one who thought such awful things about him.

'You don't still have that crazy notion, do you,' Walker was saying, 'of going back and...?'

'Actually, I do,' Stone replied evenly.

Walker shook his head. 'There's no way,' he declared. 'No one walks out of that part of the dungeons. You're on a fool's errand, Stone.'

Stone looked intensely at his old friend in return. 'I didn't barge in on this trip,' he said. 'I was sent, same as all of us. We were all chosen - and so were you, Walker - by Josh himself, who knows the Master's mind far better than anyone else I know. So when you claim I'm on a fool's errand,' Stone shook his head, 'you just might be calling Josh a fool. And I don't think you want to do that.'

Walker's face twitched. He sat down again. He turned to Forest, opened and closed his mouth a few times, then said, 'Well. This is what I've learned.'

Swiftly he sketched out for them the ins and outs of the enemy's dungeons. There were several floors underground, each one darker and nastier than the one above it - a quick glance at Stone as he said that. Three entrances at ground level: the main one to the west, a smaller one on the south, and another small one on the east side in the northmost corner. 'All heavily guarded,' Walker said. 'Usually, that is. But right now... Well, two days ago, the word came down for half the guard to go into the valley to look for intruders.'

'Us,' said Jack.

'Right. I made sure I was in the half that went.'

Joy interrupted. 'Why were you a guard?'

'What easier way to spy out the enemy's defenses?' Walker answered. 'We came through the pass below, crossed over beyond the apple tree, and then headed up the valley. The first of you all but ran into our arms.'

James flinched and said nothing.

'The next three weren't as easy - especially this boy.' He nodded at Forest. 'It took four guards going after him all at once to subdue him. And then, as we continued on up the valley,' he shook his head,' there were the rest of you, just standing there in the roadway! If I hadn't thrown that spear to warn you...'

'Oh, you threw the spear?' said Stone.

'That I did.'

'You might have hit someone.'

'Never,' said Walker. 'What I aim for, I hit. And what I aim not to hit,' he smiled, 'I don't hit. Simple. It's just a good thing,' he added, 'that when part of you broke cover, the commander of the guards didn't figure out your little ploy. I knew there were supposed to be more of you, and I figured a few had gotten away. Good thing he didn't realize what you were doing.'

'Half the guards are gone now, eh?' said Forest, his eyes gleaming in the early-morning sunlight that was creeping into the cave. 'When do you expect them back?'

'I expected them back already,' Walker frowned, crossing to the cave's mouth and looking down. 'We got here quickly enough. I would have thought we'd see them coming through the pass by now, returning.' And he waved at the path below.

'They won't be coming back quickly,' said Mac. 'And when they do return, they will not be in any condition to fight.'

Stone and Starr exchanged glances. What had Mac done?

While Forest rubbed his hands together in glee. 'Half the guards gone - perfect! Let's make plans right away. And then we'll attack!'

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