Friday, March 03, 2006
the child, part 3, chapter 20 - 'first team out'
The guards gone, Joy and Talitha spun around to find themselves now face-to-face with Malachi. 'Mal!' Joy whispered in relief.
'What just happened?' added Talitha.
'A bit of blindness,' Malachi replied. 'Or, looked at another way, a bit of favor. But now we must go.'
'But we just got here.'
'Yes, we haven't done any searching for Walker yet.'
Malachi turned the two girls and began steering them towards the stairway. 'You did hear what the guards were saying, did you not?' he asked.
'Something about, uh, guts spilling...?' Joy ventured, her nose wrinkling at the thought.
'He was speaking of Walker,' said Mal.
Horror coursed over both girls' faces. 'Oh, no! They didn't kill him, did they?'
'Not that kind of spilling of guts,' said Mal patiently. 'They meant that he broke this morning.' At their looks of non-comprehension of the term 'broke,' he added, 'That is, he told them everything.'
'But don't we still need to look for him?' asked Joy as they reached the stairway and started down.
Malachi paused and looked upstairs. 'That will not be necessary,' said he.
Morgen flew downstairs - literally. With no eye to see him, he no longer needed to maintain his human guise. Wings spread, he pressed on with all speed, zooming down the stairs.
Then, as he reached a certain landing, he slowed. A tattoo of rapid footbeats was just ahead of him. And a girlish voice floated up.
'...still need to look for him?'
A deeper and very familiar voice replied, 'That will not be necessary.'
Yes. Without bothering to adopt human form again - or visibility - Morgen caught them up. Walker is rescued; we must leave now, he told his confrere.
Yes, I am taking these little ones to the cave even now. I will return as I am able to help evacuate the rest, Malachi responded.
In the Master's will, Morgen replied and swept onward, downward. He neither slowed nor stopped as he reached the ground-level where Lucy and her companions were, but continued on to the next floor below that. Maccabees must be informed now, that he might join in aiding their assignments to escape.
Again, Morgen wasted no time on assuming a shape that Maccabees did not need to see. It is time, he said. Walker is rescued.
Ah, that is what I sensed, Mac replied.
But he told all he knows this morning before his rescue. The enemy knows all that he knows, and is moving against our people even now.
Then we must evacuate them.
Yes, said Morgen. I will continue on downstairs to aid the two teams down there. You will...
With permission? Maccabees interrupted.
If I may, I would request that I go downstairs to aid the final two teams down there.
Morgen registered surprise for a moment, but only for a moment. Very well, said he. Then I will return to the ground level to bring out Lucy and her companions.
And so they parted, each to his work.
While Malachi hurried Joy and Talitha down the stairs. They did have an advantage, he knew, for the girls were not where they were supposed to be. The guards would be looking for them either on the level downstairs where Talitha lived, or on the level upstairs where she and the others of her level were taken daily to, ah, work. But as they were in neither of those places, they would be harder to find.
They also had a disadvantage, for they were now on the stairs. And in order for the guards to spread throughout the fortress to ferret out the six teams, the guards would no doubt soon be...
There. A sound above their heads in the stairwell, of a door opening and of many feet - a cacophony of feet - rushing onto the stairs like a flood.
'The guards are coming!' gasped Joy.
'Hurry on,' counseled Malachi. 'And be not afraid.'
Urgency gave their feet wings. Down, down, down the stairs they went. Incredibly, as fast as they were going, the noise of the guards behind them seemed to be catching them up! Panting, the girls ran faster. They were nearing a door now; if only they could reach it, then they could get off the stairs and let the troops go on by...
And then Talitha tripped. Sure-footed Talitha! Her hands flew out, trying to catch herself as she fell.
When something else caught her fall. Or someone else. Somehow, Malachi's arms surrounded her, setting her back on her feet. With a wordless nod she thanked him, collecting herself to run on. But that break in the rhythm of their descent now threatened to cost them dearly.
For here came the guards.
Joy had turned as Talitha began to fall, looking up the stairs towards her two companions behind her. And now with horror she glimpsed the first of many feet coming into view beyond them. At the same moment, she saw Malachi push Talitha back against the wall. His other arm swung out, shoving her up against the wall as well, pressing both girls out of the path of the guards, protecting both from being trampled by the on-rushing stampede of guards.
And stampede it was. Joy would not have believed there were so many guards in the entire fortress! Running, jostling, leaping down the stairs. Fierce faces, angry faces. Dozens, scores of faces.
And none of them saw the three companions on the stairs? How weird was that?
From the corner of her eye, Joy could see Talitha off to her left and a stair or two higher, also puzzled that no one was noticing them. Malachi stood between them, arms out-spread, shielding them with his...
Hey! Joy peered closer. Since when did Malachi have wings? Or... were those wings? Or was she seeing things? For though she could see the shining of an outline of something bright and vaguely feathery in front of her, between her and the guards, she also saw the guards quite plainly through the brightness before her. What was this?
And... suddenly she realized this was not the first time today she'd seen such a thing. Upstairs, when the two guards had opened the door in their faces and then walked past them without any recognition of them being there... Yes! She hadn't noticed it then but now she recalled - there had been something just like this then, something right between her and the guards, barely perceived.
What was going on?
The sound from above them was growing less, and the mass of guards thinning down. A little longer, and there were only a few still coming into view from above - fewer still - then none. Malachi did not relax just yet though, and the three of them waited through another two or three minutes before he slowly dropped his arms and nodded. 'It is now safe,' he said softly.
'What did you do?' asked Joy.
'And how did you do that?' added Talitha.
'Ask me later,' he replied. 'When you are safe, and well away from here. Come.'
They fled on, still going downward. Now that the guards were ahead of them, they needed to be careful not to blunder into them. Joy had long since lost track of which floor they were on. She knew they needed to get off at the ground-level, but where was it? They especially didn't want to go too far and have to backtrack up the stairs again.
'You know where we are?' she asked Talitha.
But the tall girl shook her head. She had lost track too.
'Come,' said Malachi. Reaching a door, he laid his hand to the knob and his ear to the door itself. 'It is quiet beyond - for the moment. Stay close to me.'
Crowding in, the two girls followed him through the door. Corridors, as in all the levels where the prisoners were kept, ran off to one side. Off to the other side, beyond an open space - Joy didn't remember any open spaces in the lower levels - was a door. But between the stairway and that door there was another door. And as she looked at it, Joy remembered it.
Pointing, she whispered, 'That's where we came in.'
Malachi nodded. 'And it is where we will go out too. Come.'
'But...' she began. That door had been guarded when they came in; she remembered Forest telling how he had bluffed his way past the guard. So shouldn't there be a guard there now?
A clatter over that way. Oh yes, there was the guard. No, three guards. The two were standing ramrod straight, looking to the third, who was apparently giving them orders. And now the third turned away and went through that other door, leaving the two guards to block the back door, the door that Malachi was leading them towards.
As they drew closer to the guards - perhaps it was a trick of the light, thought Talitha, but suddenly Malachi looked massive. As if he had doubled in width. Or as if he had grown... wings?
The girls jammed together behind him, trying to look small. Somehow they had not been seen in the corridor upstairs, and again on the stairs. Would they escape notice yet a third time?
Malachi led them right up to the guards. Just as they got there, one guard's eyes narrowed, and he gave a hiss to his companion. 'Hey!'
'Hey what? You wanna get us in trouble, talking on duty?'
'Hey, I thought of something. Major Tweeg there - strike you he was acting funny?'
A snort. 'He's an officer. They all act funny.'
'Yeah, but - how come he went into the Day Room there?'
'What's wrong with him going into the Day Room? You gonna second-guess officers? You want a vacation in the deepest dungeon?'
'Ain't you forgetting? Three days ago, when all that troop came back from chasing these intruders round the valley - what was wrong with 'em?'
A shrug. 'They was blind.'
'Aye, blind! Them intruders can mess with a bloke's eyesight.' Leaning closer and jerking his head towards the Day Room door, the first guard muttered, 'What's to say they ain't been messing with our eyesight? Eh?'
The second guard gawped at him. 'What, you mean the major? You think he's one of them?'
'Tell me he ain't.'
The second guard frowned. And then the frown cleared off to be replaced with a crafty grin. 'You know, there's sure to be a reward for catching these intruders. And if we was to turn in one what was impersonating the major...'
They both guffawed. 'Let's get him!' they cried. And, abandoning their post, they bolted for the Day Room to get the 'imposter.'
'Quickly,' said Malachi as soon as the Day Room door closed behind the guards. And he did not have to tell the girls twice. In seconds they were through the door and out of the fortress. With Joy leading the way and Malachi shielding them from behind, the three sped away, glad to leave the dungeons behind them for good.
They made it across the plain to the mountain without incident. Here Malachi took the lead, searching out that same obscure path he had lead the group down - was it only three days ago?
Up they went, sometimes having to scramble through the underbrush, sometimes needing to grab on to trees to boost themselves up the barely-seen trail. Joy stole glances backwards every now and then - so did Talitha - but neither ever saw anyone following them.
Malachi, on the other hand, never looked back even once, but simply forged ahead, straight up the mountainside. The girls had to hurry to keep up with him.
'We're going to need to rest soon,' Joy finally told him. She could hear Talitha stoically gasping along beside her, and she herself was trying to ignore a nasty stitch building in her side.
'You will be able to rest very soon,' he replied. And suddenly he was no longer climbing the mountain, but leading them off to the left and a bit downhill. The pace he was setting was still faster than either of the girls would have liked, but at least they weren't climbing anymore.
'Are we almost there?'
'Almost, yes,' said Malachi. And then he stopped.
Talitha looked around, but there was nothing to see. Shrugging, she asked, 'Where are we?'
'Joy?' Malachi prompted.
She too shrugged. She had been here before, but even she saw nothing out of the ordinary - nothing that told her, 'Here is the cave you stayed in before.'
Malachi nodded. 'Good. You cannot even see it when it is right here before you.' And sweeping a section of dangling ivy tendrils to one side, he ushered the two young women into the cave beyond. 'Rest now,' he added. 'I will return soon.'
'But where are you going?' said Joy, surprised.
'You're not going back, are you?' added Talitha.
'To help the others evacuate, yes,' said Malachi. 'Wait here for them, and do not be afraid. I will rejoin you shortly.'
'Oh, but, Malachi...!' started Joy. Only to find herself talking to the swinging curtain of ivy, for Malachi was already gone. 'Oh, no,' she sighed. 'I really needed to ask him something.'
'What?' asked Talitha.
'It's just,' Joy replied, 'when they said that Walker told the guards everything,' and she looked up at her tall new friend, her own eyes troubled and anxious, 'I just wonder: did that mean he told them about this cave as well?'
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