Authors: Jennifer Bradbury
Elias and Nick then made the long descent down to Haven. Upon arriving at the pit, Nick was good enough not to notice Elias's hesitation, and was even kinder to break the silence. “We named it Smiley.”
Once they were across, Nick began to sing.
Wade in the water,
Wade in the water, children
Wade in the water,
God's a-gonna trouble the water.
“Why you singing?” Elias asked.
“Code,” Nick explained. “So they know we're coming in and we're safe. Singin's been code for folks on the path for years. Slaves sing about when to go and when to stay, where to go, who to trust, the route to take.”
“So what's the song you're singing mean?”
“Like it? Old spiritual like th'others. Means to take to the river and walk in the shallows so the dogs cain't track. We use it here to signify a friendly person heading for Haven.”
Who that yonder dressed in red?
The Lord gonna trouble the water.
Must be the children that Moses ledâ
But before he got to the last line of the verse, another voice, sweet and clear, came sailing in.
God's a-gonna trouble the water.
It was a beautiful voice, shaking high at the start of the line before tumbling down for the last note. And then a figure moved from inside the cleft they were heading for and called out, “H'lo, Nick.” Elias could see her face now. She was a pretty girl, maybe his age. Skinny as a wet cat, but her eyes gleamed bright in the lantern light, and her smile was wide.
“Evening, Josie,” Nick said. “All quiet?”
“Like white folk at church,” she said, smile dropping as she leveled her gaze hard at Elias.
“You met Elias yet?” Nick asked.
“Saw him last time he come,” Josie said. “He don't say much.”
“Maybe that's why we get 'long so good,” Nick said, then spat.
Elias studied Josie. Despite being so grim, she was even prettier than Nedra might have been once. He tore his eyes away from her face and saw she was holding something in her hands. It was a doll, fashioned out of corn husks. Tillie had some just like it. This one looked well made, the head good and round, features drawn on in charcoal. The dress swooped out into a full skirt like fancy ladies wore. “Ain't you a little old for dolls?”
Josie ignored Elias, handing the doll over to Nick. “Would you give it to Mat? For his little girl? I keep thinking he might visit, but if you wouldn't mindâ”
“Pleased to,” Nick said.
Josie smiled, quick and shy, before setting her face again. “See y'all on the way out.”
“I'll fetch back coffee,” Nick said as he and Elias resumed walking.
“Don't bother. Grounds reused too many times. Tastes worse than dirt.”
“I'll do m'best to sneak some down next time,” Nick promised.
“Sugar, too,” she called back, her voice growing faint. Nick laughed softly.
“She's got no light,” Elias said, staring into the dark behind him. “Jonah never did either.”
Nick led him through the little tunnel. “All scouts trained to know routes without light. Can walk 'em by feel. And silent, too. That way, if they have to run ahead of somebody nosing in who got no business coming, they won't be seen.”
“Can you do it?” Elias asked. “Down here, I mean?”
“Go without the light? When it suits me.”
Elias thought about thatâthey were like bats, sailing around in the dark, not smashing themselves into walls. Or homing pigeons, knowing the right way to fly home. And then he thought about the danger of itâthe fact that one misplaced foot could mean the end. His stomach tightened up like a figure eight knot.
Elias followed Nick over the wall. Things looked just as they had been when he arrived the first time. There were people at the school, folk laughing as they stooped over cook fires, a few dipping bottles and jars into a big kettle of boiling water, still others stretched out on bedrolls here and there.
“What are they doing?” Elias asked as they passed by the people with the kettle and the bottles.
“Washing up. We boil 'em good before they're refilled. Got that notion off Doctor Croghan. He has Lillian and me and th'others cook all his tools and bleeding things before he uses them on y'all.”
“They really moved all those bottles in and out on the river?” There must have been fifty or sixty awaiting a dip in the kettle.
“Mmhm. Backing up now, like the travelers. But folk we move in mostly through the main entrance.”
Nick grinned slyly. “Most runaways cain't find the river entrances, only know that Haven is here. So they come through the main opening like everybody else. Getting 'crost the road and by the hotel risky, but if they can manage that, we bring 'em in when it's safe. Mat brung Josie in,” he explained, spitting again before adding, “I reckon the doll's her thanks.”
“Don't anybody recognize the strangers?” Elias asked.
“Naw,” Nick said. “Only ones around here permanent are Croghan's slaves and Croghan himself. Th'other hands don't say nothing, and Croghan's got enough to occupy him. Most guests don't pay enough mind to even notice we're different from one another.”
Elias knew it was true. Knew it because of the way he'd not paid attention at first. Knew it because of the way even now he had a hard time picturing the features of the girl who served them back home. He felt a twinge of shame.
Nick didn't seem to notice. “See them?” He pointed to a young man and a girl about eighteen cozied up next to the light of a fire as they shared a book.
“What about 'em?” Elias asked.
“Got married two weeks ago. Met down here.”
“Y'all got a minister?” Elias asked, staring at the pair.
“Hughes does it. Ain't a bad preacher, neither.”
“Hughes does it all,” Elias said. “You think he's got a plan cooked up yet?”
“We'll see.” As they made their way to Hughes, a few hands rose in greeting to Nick. When folks set eyes on Elias, men touched their caps and women whispered blessings.
“Why they doing that?”
It made Elias feel funny. “But I didn't do anything.”
“Like I tol' Josieâyou don't say much. That's a whole lot to us and them.”
Hughes was perched on his rock, eating a bowl of steaming mash and talking to Stephen. He lifted his chin toward Nick and Elias as they approached.
“I told them what Pennyrile said to you,” Stephen explained. “Did you read the letter?”
Nick nodded to Elias. “He did.”
“It only said âStand ready,'â” Elias reported.
Stephen and the others let it settle. Elias knew they understood what he'd worked out since reading the note: Pennyrile was confident that he'd get what he came for soon.
Elias waited as Hughes scooped a lump of porridge with a wedge of corn cake. The man took a long pull from a glass bottle like the ones Elias saw the others washing earlier. Then he wiped his mouth on a red handkerchief and began carefully, “I've been thinkingÂ .Â .Â .”
A small crowd began to gather around them. Soon Jonah was at his side.
“I've been thinking about our problem,” Hughes continued after he took another drink of the water. “And the more I think on it, the more delicate I find it becomes.”
“Not if we do what we ought to,” one man cried, edging forward. “He's an old man. He's a criminal, and he's consumptive to boot. He ain't bound to live long either way. And if we just move him alongâ”
“Daniel!” Hughes said, the smoke and thunder back in his voice. “Killing him, no matter how rotten the man may be, won't do.”
Elias sat spellbound. They were talking about killing someone! A peculiar thought flitted through his mindâthe knights and Arthur had to go around killing monsters and villains and giants all the time. He expected they wouldn't have lost any sleep over someone like Pennyrile. But Elias was with Hughes: killing Pennyrile still sounded wrong.
Stephen chimed in. “If you kill him, it doesn't mean somebody else won't come looking. Doesn't mean his crew will just give up on him. Or on finding the spring.”
“Exactly right,” Hughes said. “Exactly right.”
Jonah whispered to Elias, “Could use us a glamour right 'bout now, wouldn't you say?” A glamour would have been just the thing. When Merlin had a problem, or needed things to go a certain way, he used his magic. A dose of magic at the moment would be a whole lot neater and raise a lot fewer questions than a dead pirate.
“Wouldn't even have to last long,” Elias offered.
And the possibility struck him. A wonderful possibility.
A glamour didn't have to last.
Only long enough to fool somebody.
Elias looked wide-eyed at Jonah. Jonah must have had the same thought, for he whispered, “We ain't got to
Pennyrile. We jes' got to trick him.”
“Right!” Elias said excitedly, loudly. Too loudly. He sensed all eyes upon him. Even Hughes stared at him.
“Something to say?” Hughes leaned forward.
“The best thing to do is to give him what he wants so he'll go away,” Elias blurted out.
Some of the men crowded in on him. Elias and Jonah sprang to their feet.
Daniel stepped so close, he could have bumped chests with Elias. “Stephen may be fool enough to trust this boy, but it don't mean we all are! We got no reason to believe he ain't working with Pennyrile already.”
Jonah made himself a wall between Elias and Daniel. “We didn't meanâ”
Elias drew himself up as tall as he could go. “I'd never!”
“Simmer down, the pack of you,” Hughes rumbled.
“I meant we could trick him!” Elias fumed, not caring a whit that Hughes told him to be quiet.
“Go on,” Hughes said.
“You tell 'em, Jonah.” Elias didn't trust his words to come out right. He felt the way he had on the day he'd punched Theodore Coates in the school yard. That feeling of running out of words, something else taking over.
Jonah rubbed the back of his neck with one hand. “Elias and me was talking about Merlin and how he used his magic, made one person look like another when it suited him. And there's this other story Merlin ain't in but a green knightâ”
“Merlin? Green knights?” Daniel barked. He swung round to face Hughes. “We ain't got time for fairy talesâ”
“What Jonah's sayin',” Elias broke in, “is that all we got to do is lead Pennyrile to some other spring or pool or something and make him think it's the one y'all get your tonic from. He's sick enough to believe what you give him. And he believes it works, thinks that's why I'm better. He's known about it the whole time he's been down here, so he ought to be ready to believe what you show him.”
“It's a kind of
,” Jonah put in, sounding proud to impress somebody with the word.
No one spoke. Even Daniel seemed stuck dumb. Elias wasn't sure if it was because they all thought the notion was so foolish, or so brilliant. Finally Stephen broke the silence. “It'd have to be near one of the river exits,” he said. “Pennyrile probably already knows we move most of it out on the river.”
“And it'd have to be off the main runs we use,” Hughes added. “So they won't see anything we don't want them to.”
“There's that pool, just up from Lake Lethe,” Nick said excitedly. “Got a bit of that funny taste too. Might serve.”
“Far enough away,” Hughes said at last as he began drawing crosshatch patterns in the sand with his cane.
Even Daniel warmed to the notion. “That'd put him on the River Styx, which we don't even useâ”
“Meaning the way out on the Echo and upstream would be safe for us,” Hughes supplied.
The prospect of the way North opening again, of Haven finally exhaling after having held its breath for so long, seemed to brighten every eye.
“StillÂ .Â .Â . Pennyrile's smart,” Hughes went on, somewhat reluctantly. “He may be desperate, but he's too smart not to be suspicious. He'll wonder why you're willing to help him now.”
Stephen was grim. “I thought the same thing. And I think I got a plan.”
Stephen's plan was the last thing Elias ever expected him to say.
“I'm going to tell him he has to take me North.”
“Stephenâ” Hughes began.
“I've worked it over a thousand different ways. He won't believe me unless he thinks I'm getting something out of it. And there can't be anything I'd want from him except that.”
The fire popped and hissed in the gloom. There they stood, surrounded by dozens of runaways who wanted to escape, biding their time until it was safe enough to continue on their way. And then there was Stephen, perhaps the only one who wanted to
The cave was his home, he'd said. He was as happy as he figured he could be.
But he would give it all up. Run. So others could do the same.
“You can'tÂ .Â .Â .Â ,” Elias began, not sure what else to say.
“I have to,” Stephen said, though there was no joy in saying it. “You all know it too. Plus, if he and his crew are busy smuggling me North, then they'll be off the river for a spell, and give you all a clear shot out.”
Nick laid a hand on Stephen's shoulder. “You're sure?”
Stephen clenched his jaw and nodded once.
Hughes seemed unable to speak for a good long while. Finally he said, “You've kept us going. And now you'll give us a chance. We can't ever make good on that debt.”
Stephen just gazed at the sand beneath his feet. Elias was proud and sad and disbelieving all at once. Stephen was in every path and route and nook of this cave. He
this cave. His leaving was likeÂ .Â .Â . likeÂ .Â .Â . Arthur without Excalibur.