Authors: Nicholas Anderson
back and brought his crossbow up, training it on Bailus's chest.
"Maybe it is," he said, "But plowing through the swamp without
looking into this is madness. And I've had it with this madness.
I've had it with stupid old men telling me what to do. You (he jabbed his
crossbow in Bailus's direction); Old Man Hallander. I'm making my own
bow down," Tipper Long said, holding out an open hand. Dioji stood
beside him, snarling with his hackles raised. Tipper placed his hand on
Dioji’s head and the dog relaxed, but only slightly.
Edric did not
lower his bow but pointed it in the empty space between Bailus and
Tipper. "Who's with me?" he asked.
anything stupid, Eddie," Tipper said.
“Why should that
matter?” Edric said.
"Stupid's what we've been
doing all morning."
we at least check out the smoke?" Markis said.
could be a mile away for all you know. You could look for it all day and
still not find its source."
“Who you going to listen to?”
hung heads, Markis and Franklin stepped behind Edric.
towards Bailus and Tipper.
moved. "Shame,” Edric said. “We could have made better use of
the dog. Well, we'll be seeing you ladies."
By late morning
Dane’s party came to a waterfall in which the stream spilled down over a large
nose-shaped rock into a little pool. On one side of the falls, stones
formed crude steps to the top of the little cliff. After drinking and
resting by the pool, they climbed the cliff and found themselves in a narrow
ravine, the base of which was nearly filled by the stream. Strapping
their bows to their backs, they picked their way carefully along the side,
stepping on stones and clinging to roots which protruded from the earthen
walls. Wink ran lightly along the side.
Dane, in the
lead (except for the dog), grasped a root and stretched to place his foot on
the next stone. Suddenly, the dog barked. Dane started. The
root tore loose and his foot slipped, splashing into the water. As he
slid, he looked up, hoping to spot another root to catch hold of. In the
split second his gaze was focused skyward he thought he saw two dark eyes
watching him from a dark masked face from the lip of the ravine above.
All this happened as his foot was still sliding off the rock. He looked
down, involuntarily, to steady himself.
behind him, grabbed Dane’s left arm to steady him. Wet to his knees, but
his feet once again on a firm surface, Dane looked up. Whatever he had
seen or thought he'd seen was gone. Then he looked at the dog. Wink
was growling lowly and his ears were lowered and the hair on the back of his
neck stood up like spikes. He was looking at the brow of the cutbank
above Dane’s head.
on and presently the ravine opened up so that they were walking on a broad,
shallow bank. Their path continued to ascend and became rockier.
Trees lined the bank. They passed several small cave mouths, dark
openings in the rocks. How far back they went and where they led Dane
could only guess. He wondered if any of these had been mines. At
some of the larger entrances they stopped to call out and checked for ashes but
they never found anything.
guessing the noon hour had already passed when he said, "We should turn
Rem, stepping up
to him and pointing over his shoulder, said, "What's that?"
Dane turned to
see what appeared at first glance to be just a pile of moss-covered
didn't know better I'd say it looked like a building,” Owen said.
“Like a hermit's or mage's dwelling out of one of the dark
another cave," said Bax.
closer to the rocks. He did not think it was a cave, at least not like
the others they had seen, but he would not have thought of it as a hermit's
home either. Large, roughly cylindrical standing stones supported a roof
of long, flat slate-like rocks. But these rocks were themselves covered
in grass and the standing stones were dark with moss.
A temple; that
is the first description his mind attached to it.
the entrance to a mine, perhaps.
But if it was that, then it was
no work of the servants of his father. This thing looked as old as the
island itself. He could imagine industrious little dwarves building this
entrance to a cavern hall when mankind was still only scattered tribes of
nomadic hunter-gatherers. The creation of another age it seemed.
He placed his
hand on one of the standing stones. He squinted trying to see inside, but
it was too dark.
Darker than he would have thought
He was running his hand over the stone column (he was
sure that was what it was now) and trying to make up his mind, or perhaps build
up his nerve, to enter, when his hand felt something different. Till now
he had been aware only of the scraggly moss and the grainy smoothness of the
stone, but his fingers now traced a groove in the stone. When he looked
at the stone, he could only tell the groove was there because he felt it, so
well did the moss conceal its presence. But Dane was quite sure this was
no natural feature of the rock. It was too even and smooth, running down
at a slight angle across the height of the column.
He pulled out
his knife and began to peel back the moss. The carving began to take
shape. Dane's heart beat faster. Working with the knife in one hand
and the nails of the other, he scraped away the moss and lichen. All at
once he recognized what he was looking at and he knew he'd been wrong about the
island. He had to get back and tell Bailus.
were not already too late.
But, at that moment, Dane’s thoughts
were interrupted by the sound of someone screaming.
"We're really going to catch
it if Bailus gets to Dane before we do," Markis said, hurrying to catch up
with Edric and Franklin.
let him touch us once we return with his precious settlers in tow," Edric
said. "Dane's not a total fool. He values intelligence.
He values initiative."
Their path began
to climb and soon they found they had left the swamp and returned to the firm
ground of the sweet-smelling forest. Edric counted this a success in
Bailus had been
right about one thing: the fire did prove hard to find. As soon as
they were in the woods they lost sight of the smoke and were forced to spend
the better part of two hours without much more than a glimpse of it. But
Edric prided himself on his sense of direction and he kept the general
coordinates of the smoke in his mind and continued to lead his little band on a
winding climb into the heart of the island. Only once did Edric really
They had been
forced to walk around a curving ridge that swept them out in the opposite
direction they'd been heading, and when they finally got around it, he realized
he no longer knew what direction they'd been heading for.
“Make’s me wish
I had Blackthorn with me,” Franklin said.
Markis said. “Your mutt could get lost chasing his own tail.”
“I know he’s no
good on the trail,” Franklin said. “But a man feels better when he has his
dog with him.”
“So, what now, hotshot?”
Markis said to Edric.
Edric said. “We use dead reckoning, just like on the ship. We
imagine our original position and the position of the smoke as two points on a
map. Then we estimate the distance and direction we’ve traveled to guess
how close we are.”
Franklin laughed. “I’m
climbing a tree.”
The first thing
Franklin noticed when he got up his tree was how low the sun was. It had
already gone behind the higher ridges to the west of them. He looked
northward and sighted the column of smoke. He hurried down to report what
he had seen.
on. They came to a cave opening in a rocky hill face from which a little
stream ran out on one side. They drank from the stream but the chill in
the air compelled them to keep moving. The forest began to grow dark
around them. The dark came on uncommonly fast. They had not taken
the hills into account when calculating how much daylight they would have; but
with the sun already behind the hills, the forest about them was sinking into
lit this fire, I hope they're fixing dinner over it," said Franklin.
came into a clearing and there in its center sat a smoking fire pit. The
pit was ringed with round white stones. The clearing was deserted; but
little tendrils of mist were beginning to seep through the trees on the other
side. The silence was almost tangible; like a wall one pressed
against. It took will to step further out from the trees.
The three men
had expected the clearing to be full of people; men, women, children.
They had expected to enter to shouts of surprise and joy. Somehow, this
silent greeting made them wary. They moved slowly towards the smoldering
fire pit; solemnly, without a word, as though they feared disturbing some
invisible assembly there. They were close enough to feel the welcome
warmth of the embers when Franklin swore and stumbled back from the ring of
only stared at the ring. Edric glanced back at the ring of stones and
that was when he realized they were not stones at all, but skulls.
At the sound of
screaming, Dane spun from the moss-covered stone to see Owen lying on his
back. The lower half of his right leg had disappeared. Dane ran
towards him even as Bax and Joseph reached him.
Owen had stopped
screaming but he was making almost as much noise with his groaning and
cursing. Dane saw his right leg was stuck in a hole in the ground.
Owen tried to sit up and then flopped back again with a curse.
leg out of there," Dane shouted.
Bax and Joseph
tried pulling on Owen’s leg but he cursed louder and flailed his arms at them,
nearly sitting up again in his attempts to beat them off. Wink snapped
and snarled at them.
beside him and helped him lay down again. "Don't move," he
worry, Captain," Owen said through gritted teeth, "I'm not going
know. I took a step and my foot went right down. Feels like I
stepped on a dozen red-hot nails."
Owen's shoulder. The man was sweating badly. "Just hold
his chest almost to the ground, Dane slid his hand down the hole. There
were lots of twigs and grass, probably what had concealed the trap, but the
walls were smooth dirt. Dane felt gingerly around Owen's foot.
Several long spikes, longer and thinner than any nails Dane had ever seen,
stood point-upward on either side of Owen's boot.
Lying with his
chest pressed against the ground, Dane reached to the bottom of the hole and
felt a wooden plate which the nails were fixed to. He worked his hand
around, feeling the edge of the plate and trying to judge how much smaller it
was than the hole. It might just be small enough. "Bax, help
me get him up," Dane said. "Owen, we're going to pull you up
into a crouch. Keep all your weight on your good foot. Bax will
help keep you steady."
and Dane pulled Owen up into a crouch so his right leg was extended straight,
the top half of it above the mouth of the hole. Bax knelt at his left and
had Owen lean against him for support.
help him stand, slowly. Joseph, give Bax a hand. Owen, keep your
leg straight. Rem, get behind him and make sure he doesn't
heavily, Owen let Bax help him stand. Dane kept his hands around Owen's
boot and the nail plate, guiding them out of the hole. Owen only swore
once, hissing "slower" to Bax.
As soon as they had
the foot out, they helped him lie back on the grass again. Dane drew a
sharp breath when he saw the boot. Three of the spikes had had gone clean
through Owen’s foot and protruded from the top of his boot.
Dane looked at
the spikes and then patted Owen on the shoulder again. "It's your
lucky day, Manies. I was worried these would be barbed."
to see your unlucky, Captain," Owen said in one sharp exhalation.
down here and hold his ankle."
Bax knelt beside
"Hold it tight,"
Dane whispered. "Now, Owen, I want you to think about the girl who's
waiting for you back home. What's her name?
sir," said Owen, staring up at the sky.
Dane gripped the
wooden plate firmly. Bax turned his head away, but tightened his grip on
about the last few hours you spent together before you shipped out."
Dane took a deep breath.
I've thought about since we aaahhhh!"
As Owen talked,
Dane had given a sharp tug. He sat back now, the newly-liberated spike
plate in his hands.
“What is wrong
with you?” Owen said. “You nearly made me bite my tongue off. You
could have warned me.”
Dane said, "The anticipation is worse than the actual pain."
it," said Owen.
chuckled Dane, getting to his feet.
sir. Thank you for ruining my favorite memory. I'm forever indebted
Dane pushed the
spikes into the earth and stamped the plate down flat with his boot. He
removed Owen's boot and tore his undershirt into strips for bandages. Bax
turned away again. He'd never been good with blood. Dane sent him
off to cut some branches to make a stretcher. Joseph and Rem went with
him. Dane began to wrap Owen’s wounds.
Ruth," Owen said, his eyes half closed and his breathing shallow.
"Your touch thrills me."
as gentle as I can," said Dane dryly, giving the two ends of the bandage a
sharp tug and tying them off more tightly than he needed.
don't stop now," Owen moaned.
“There’s no way
I’m going in there,” Markis said.
“It’s as good a
place as any to spend the night,” Edric said. The three rangers had
returned to the cave. From the orangish tint of the sky, Edric guessed
the sun was setting over the water far to the west. The sky’s last light
did little to penetrate the forest. In the gathering gloom and rising
mist, it was hard to see more than fifty paces.
“We should head
back to the settlement,” Markis said.
“We’d never make
it in the dark,” Franklin said.
“But Dane wanted
everyone within the walls by nightfall.”
“Dane is the
least of our worries, now,” said Edric.
“Well, can’t we
sleep out here in the open?” said Markis.
“If you don’t
want to check it out, then go back and get some embers from the fire,” Edric
“I’d sleep out
in the cold all night before I took anything from that hell-hole,” Markis said.
“Well, then just
wait here while we make sure it’s safe,” Franklin said.
Markis sat down
on a rock outside the cave mouth. The last sight Edric had of him, he was
beginning to pull his cloak out of his pack. Then Edric turned and, with
Franklin behind him, stepped into the cave.
The stream ran
out on their right and they were walking on a steep, sandy floor that ran down
towards it like a bank. Edric glanced around the mouth of the cave for
any signs of recent occupancy.
He saw nothing but the gravelly floor. He
stepped over a heavy, leafless tree branch. He figured it must have been
washed out of the cave when heavy rains swelled the creek but then he wondered
without guessing how a branch would come to be in a cave at all. He went
a few paces forward. He found that the gravelly bank ended shortly
inside, running down to the stream, and that the stream, shallow though it was,
covered the rear of the cave from wall to wall.
He stepped into
the stream. He heard Franklin enter the water away on his left.
Except for when he stepped, the water slipped silently around his boots.
From further back in the cave, a drip-drip-drip came.
Just water from
those stalagmites or stalactites or
whatever they’re called,
Edric told himself. It was almost completely
dark around him now. The only light came from the cave opening, which he
did look at, as he wanted his eyes to adjust to the dark as much as
Every once in a
while, Edric sensed he passed openings in the sides of the cave, blacker holes
in the darkness around him which seemed to swallow the sound of his
footfalls. He felt rather than saw the cave roof come steeply down so
that it was now just over his head. He reached up and touched it.
He felt his way forward cautiously, keeping one hand on the roof so as to not
strike his head. He paused. No sound but the drip-drip-drip and Franklin’s
breathing beside him. He went forward a little ways. He had to
crouch now so his knees almost touched the water. He paused again,
sitting on his haunches. He sniffed. There was a faint burnt odor
in the stale cave air. “Let’s turn back,” he said. “There’s nothing
here. What’s it like on your side?”
There was no
his grip on his bow. “Frankie?”
hard. He strained his ears. That’s when he noticed how dead silent
it was. Even the drip-drip-drip had ceased. He held his
breath. His eyes darted around but could find nothing to grasp on in the
infinite, uniform darkness.
He was about to
exhale when he realized he had been wrong about the silence. In the pitch
black, someone, or something, was breathing beside him.
Edric’s whisper was more of a whimper.
croaking cry came from the blackness. Edric imagined he could but reach
out his hand and touch the source of the sound.
He turned and
As soon as he turned, he had before him the
light at the end of the tunnel, fading though it was. He never took his
eyes off it. Once he tripped on a stone and stumbled to his knees but he
was up before the water had time to soak his leggings. His ragged
breathing and the splashes of his footfalls seemed as loud as explosions.
He was almost to the gravel bank when he realized he no longer carried his
crossbow. He must have dropped it when he fell. All these things
flashed through his mind as he stumbled up the bank. There was enough
light now that, if he looked over his shoulder, he might be able to see what
was behind him. But he did not look back.
for that very reason.
someone, struck him in the legs and he
in the scree. He tried to get up but something still held his leg.
He kicked wildly, felt his foot strike something, and then he was free and
running again. He burst out of the mouth of the cave.
The twilight he
had fled into had a two-dimensional feel to it. The mist so thick it was
like a wall.
Edric pulled his
knife from the sheath at his hip as he spun to face the cave entrance. He
waited. Nothing charged out at him. But still he did not look
away. He gripped his knife and waited. His breathing calmed and his
heart slowed its hammering.