Authors: Emily Rodda
The story so far …
Sixteen-year-old Lief, fulfilling a pledge made by his father before he was born, has set out on a great quest to find the seven gems of the magic Belt of Deltora. The Belt is all that can save the kingdom from the tyranny of the evil Shadow Lord, who, only months before Lief’s birth, invaded Deltora and enslaved its people with the help of sorcery and his fearsome Grey Guards.
The gems — an amethyst, a topaz, a diamond, a ruby, an opal, a lapis lazuli, and an emerald — were stolen to open the way for the evil Shadow Lord to invade the kingdom. Now they lie hidden in dark and terrible places throughout the land. Only when they have been restored to the Belt can the heir to Deltora’s throne be found, and the Shadow Lord’s tyranny ended.
Lief set out with one companion — the man Barda, who was once a Palace guard. Now they have been joined by Jasmine — a wild, orphaned girl of Lief’s own age, who they met during their first adventure in the fearful Forests of Silence.
In the Forests they discovered the amazing healing powers of the nectar of the Lilies of Life. They also succeeded in finding the first gem — the golden topaz, symbol of faithfulness, which has the power to bring the living into contact with the spirit world, as well as other powers they do not yet understand.
Now read on …
ief, Barda, and Jasmine walked through the crisp, bright morning. The sky was palest blue. The sun slanted between the trees, lighting with bars of gold the winding path they trod. The dark terrors of the Forests of Silence were far behind them.
On such a day, Lief thought, striding along behind Barda, it would be easy to believe that all was well in Deltora. Away from the crowded, ruined city of Del, away from the sight of patroling Grey Guards and the misery of people living in hunger and fear, you could almost forget that the Shadow Lord ruled in the land.
But it would be foolish to forget. The countryside was beautiful, but danger lurked everywhere on the road to the Lake of Tears.
Lief glanced behind him and met Jasmine’s eyes. Jasmine had not wanted to come this way. She had argued against it with all her strength.
Now she walked as lightly and silently as always, but her body was stiff and her mouth was set in a straight, hard line. This morning she had tied her long hair back with a strip of cloth torn from her ragged clothes. Without its usual frame of wild brown curls her face seemed very small and pale and her green eyes looked huge.
The little furry creature she called Filli was clinging to her shoulder, chattering nervously. Kree, the raven, was fluttering clumsily through the trees beside her as if unwilling to keep to the ground but also unwilling to fly too far ahead.
And in that moment Lief realized, with a shock, just how afraid they were.
But Jasmine was so brave in the Forests, he thought, turning quickly back to face the front. She risked her life to save us. This part of Deltora is dangerous, certainly. But then, in these days of the Shadow Lord there is danger everywhere. What is so special about this place? Is there something she has not told us?
He remembered the argument that had taken place as the three companions had discussed where they would go after they left the Forests of Silence.
“It is madness to go through the land to the north!” Jasmine had insisted, her eyes flashing. “The sorceress Thaegan rules there.”
“It has always been her stronghold, Jasmine,” Barda pointed out patiently. “Yet in the past many travelers passed through it and survived to tell the tale.”
“Thaegan is ten times more powerful now than she ever was!” exclaimed Jasmine. “Evil loves evil, and the Shadow Lord has increased her strength so that now she is swollen with vanity as well as wickedness. If we travel through the north we are doomed!”
Lief and Barda glanced at each other. Both had been glad when Jasmine decided to leave the Forests of Silence and join them on their quest to find the lost gems of the Belt of Deltora. It was thanks to her that they had not perished in the Forests. It was thanks to her that the first stone, the golden topaz, was now fixed to the Belt Lief wore hidden under his shirt. They knew that Jasmine’s talents would be of great use as they moved on to find the six remaining stones.
But for a long time Jasmine had lived by her wits, with no one to please but herself. She was not used to following the plans of others, and had no fear of speaking her feelings plainly. Now Lief was realizing, with some annoyance, that there were going to be times when Jasmine was an uncomfortable, unruly companion.
“We are sure that one of the gems is hidden at the Lake of Tears, Jasmine,” he said sharply. “So we must go there.”
Jasmine stamped her foot impatiently. “Of course!” she exclaimed. “But we do not have to travel all the way through Thaegan’s territory to do it. Why are you so stubborn and foolish, Lief? The Lake is at the edge of Thaegan’s lands. If we approach it from the south,
making a wide circle, we can avoid her notice till the very end.”
“Such a journey would force us to cross the Os-Mine Hills, so would take five times as long,” growled Barda, before Lief could answer. “And who knows what dangers the Hills themselves might hold? No. I believe we should go the way we have planned.”
“I, too,” Lief agreed. “So it is two against one.”
“It is not!” Jasmine retorted. “Kree and Filli vote with me.”
“Kree and Filli do not have a vote,” growled Barda, finally losing patience. “Jasmine — come with us or return to the Forests. The decision is yours.”
With that, he strode away, with Lief close behind him. Jasmine, after a long minute, walked slowly after them. But she was frowning, and in the days that followed, she had grown more and more grave and silent.
Lief was thinking so deeply that he almost cannoned into Barda, who had stopped abruptly just around a bend in the track. He started to apologize, but Barda waved his arm for silence, and pointed.
They had reached the end of the tree-lined pathway, and directly ahead of them yawned a great chasm, its bare, rocky cliffs gleaming pink in the sunlight. Over the terrible drop swayed a narrow bridge made of rope and wooden planks. And in front of the bridge stood a huge, golden-eyed, dark-skinned man holding a wickedly curved sword.
Like a gaping wound in the earth, the chasm stretched away to left and right as far as the eye could see. Wind blew through it, making a soft, eerie sound, and great brown birds swooped on the gusts like enormous kites, wings spread wide.
There was no way across except the swaying bridge. But the way to the bridge was barred by the golden-eyed giant, who stood unmoving and unblinking, on guard.
ief stood stiffly, his heart beating fast, as Jasmine followed him around the bend. He heard her take a sharp breath as she, too, saw what was ahead.
The golden-eyed man had noticed them, but he made no move. He just stood, waiting. He wore nothing but a loincloth, yet he did not shiver in the wind. He was so still you could have thought him a statue, except that he breathed.
“He is bewitched,” Jasmine whispered, and Kree made a small, moaning sound.
They walked cautiously forward. The man watched them silently. But when finally they stood before him, at the very edge of the terrible drop, he raised his sword warningly.
“We wish to pass, friend,” Barda said. “Stand aside.”
“You must answer my question,” replied the man in a low, rasping voice. “If you answer correctly, you may pass. If you answer wrongly, I must kill you.”
“By whose order?” Jasmine demanded.
“By the order of the sorceress Thaegan,” rasped the man. At the sound of the name his skin seemed to quiver. “Once, I tried to deceive her, to save a friend from death. Now it is my doom to guard this bridge until truth and lies are one.”
He looked from one to the other. “Who will meet my challenge?”
“I will,” Jasmine said, shaking off Barda’s restraining hand and stepping forward.
The look of fear had disappeared from her face. It had been replaced by an expression that for a moment Lief did not recognize. And then, with amazement, he realized that it was pity.
“Very well.” The huge man looked down at his feet. A row of sticks lay there in the dust.
“Change eleven to nine, without removing any sticks,” he said harshly.
Lief felt his stomach turn over.
“This is not a fair question,” exclaimed Barda. “We are not magicians!”
“The question has been asked,” said the man, his golden eyes unblinking. “It must be answered.”
Jasmine had been staring at the sticks. Suddenly she crouched and began moving them around. Her body hid what she was doing, but when she stood up again Lief gasped. There were still eleven sticks, but now they read:
“Very good,” said the man, with no change of tone. “You may pass.”
He stood aside and Jasmine moved onto the bridge. But when Lief and Barda tried to follow her, he barred their way.
“Only the one who answers may cross,” he said.
Jasmine had turned and was watching them. Black
wings spread wide, Kree hovered above her head. The bridge swayed dangerously.
“Go on!” Barda called. “We will follow.”
Jasmine nodded slightly, turned again, and began walking lightly across the bridge, as carelessly as if it were a tree branch in the Forests of Silence.
“You spoke, so your question is next,” said the man with the golden eyes, turning to Barda. “Here it is — what is it that a beggar has, that a rich man needs, and that the dead eat?”
There was silence. Then —
“Nothing,” said Barda quietly. “The answer is, ‘Nothing.’”
“Very good,” said the man. “You may pass.”
He stood aside.
“I would like to wait until my companion has answered his question,” Barda said, without moving. “Then we can cross the bridge together.”
“That is not permitted,” said the man. The powerful muscles of his arms tightened slightly on the curved sword.
“Go, Barda,” whispered Lief. His skin was tingling with nerves, but he was sure he could answer the question, whatever it was. Jasmine and Barda had succeeded, and he had far more learning than either of them.
Barda frowned, but did not argue further. Lief watched as he stepped onto the bridge and began walking slowly across it, holding tightly to the rails of rope.
The rope creaked under his weight. The great birds swooped around him, riding the wind. Far below, there was the thin, snake-like trail of a gleaming river. But Barda did not look down.
“Here is the third question,” rasped the man with the golden eyes, stepping back into his place. “It is long, so to be fair I will ask it twice. Listen well.”
Lief paid close attention as the man began to speak. The question was in the form of a rhyme:
Thaegan gulps her favorite food
In her cave with all her brood:
Hot, Tot, Jin, Jod,
Fie, Fly, Zan, Zod,
Pik, Snik, Lun, Lod
And the dreaded Ichabod.
Each child holds a slimy toad.
On each toad squirm two fat grubs.
On each grub ride two fleas brave.
How many living in Thaegan’s cave?
Lief almost smiled with relief. How many long afternoons had he spent doing sums under the watchful eye of his mother? He could meet this test easily!
He knelt on the ground and as the rhyme was repeated he counted carefully, writing numbers in the dust with his finger.
There were thirteen of Thaegan’s children altogether. Plus thirteen toads. Plus twenty-six grubs. Plus
fifty-two fleas. That made … one hundred and four. Lief checked the sum twice and opened his mouth to speak. Then his heart thudded painfully as, just in time, he realized that he had nearly made a mistake. He had forgotten to add Thaegan herself!
Almost panting at the near disaster, he scrambled to his feet.
“One hundred and five,” he gasped.
The man’s strange eyes seemed to flash. “You have not answered well,” he said. His hand shot out and grabbed Lief’s arm with a grip of iron.
Lief gaped at him, feeling the heat of panic rise into his cheeks. “But — the sum is correct!” he stammered. “The children, the toads, the grubs, and the fleas — and Thaegan herself — add up to one hundred and five!”
“Yes,” said the man. “But you have forgotten Thaegan’s favorite food. A raven, swallowed alive. It was in the cave also, alive in her belly. The answer is one hundred and six.”
He lifted his curved sword. “You have not answered well,” he repeated. “Prepare to die.”