The Perilous Realm Online

Chapter Seven

When they returned from Appleyard Rowen met them in the hall. She wanted to know everything that had been said, and if they had met any of the riders, but Will did not feel like talking. He soon said goodnight and took Shade with him up to his room.

The wolf stretched out on the rug by the bed, and very quickly fell into what seemed a deep, untroubled sleep, though Will had the uncanny sense that Shade was still wide awake. Will himself lay for a long time with his eyes open, gazing at the ceiling. Outside, rain began to fall, pattering loudly at the window as the wind rose. Lightning flashed, and thunder boomed, and Will turned this way and that in the bed, unable to get to sleep. He thought about his father. What was he doing now? Was it raining there too? Was he lying awake, too, wondering what had happened to Will, or did he even care at all? Tears stung his eyes and he wiped them angrily away.

He thought about Rowen, and the young man named Finn. Pendrake was taking them all into the wilds beyond Fable, with no destination, no plan. What if the old man was wrong? They were all leaving the safety of Fable for Will’s sake, even though it meant they might be walking straight into terrible danger.

Finally he sat up.

“I’ll go by myself,” he said. He climbed out of bed as quietly as he could, opened the door of his room and peered warily out. He heard a soft sound behind him and jumped. Shade was standing there, alert and watching him.

 

“I will not harm you, Will Lightfoot.”

 

“I know. I’m sorry. I’m just not used to being around wolves.”

 

“There are no wolves where you come from?”

 

“None like you. Listen, Shade, I have to leave. Now.”

 

“Then so do I,” Shade said.

 

Will was about to protest, then noticed the calm way the wolf stood there, as if nothing could frighten or daunt him, and he nodded his agreement. He thought that with Shade beside him he might actually have the nerve to walk out the door into the night.

 

“I’m glad,” he said finally.

 

Will slipped on the cloak he had taken from the snug and went out onto the landing. The house was silent, but the stairs were coldly lit by moonlight streaming in through the windows. With Shade at his heels Will headed downstairs, wondering if he dared sneak into Edweth’s kitchen for some bread, and then he stopped. He couldn’t just go, not without thanking them all, Edweth, Rowen and the toymaker, for what they had done for him. He would have to leave them something. After a long hesitation he turned and tiptoed back up the stairs.

 

“That’s as far as we’re going?” Shade asked.

 

“For now,” Will said. “There’s something I have to do first.”

 

He went back to his room, sat down at the desk, and wrote a short letter, which he folded and tucked into his pocket. Stepping back out into the corridor, he paused, wondering where it would be best to leave the letter so it would be found. In the end he decided that slipping the paper under the door of the toymaker’s workshop was the best choice. He climbed the stairs to the top floor, trying not to make any noise as he ascended. The wolf’s claws clicked on the polished floorboards, and it seemed to Will that even this faint sound must be carrying all over the house. It also occurred to him he didn’t know where the toymaker slept, if indeed he slept at all.

 

The top floor was dark. The door of the workshop was closed, but a thin bar of light showed at the bottom edge and streamed out into the corridor. Hurriedly Will bent and began to slide the letter under the door, into the light. At the last moment, just when it was almost out of sight, the door began to open.

 

Will snatched the letter back and stood up.

 

Pendrake stood in the doorway.

 

“Will,” he said sternly. “I was just thinking about you.”

 

Will remembered that he was dressed in a cloak, but the toymaker didn’t seem to notice. Fearing a lecture or worse, he said nothing.

 

“Come in,” the old man said. “It appears we’ve both had trouble sleeping tonight.”

 

“Sorry to bother you,” Will muttered, and could think of nothing else to say. His plan of slipping away in the night was laid bare, and he had revealed it himself, as if his own will was working against him. Reluctantly he followed the old man into the room and Shade padded in after him. A dying fire was glowing in the hearth, and on the toymaker’s desk, under the light of a lamp, was a small wooden toy in the shape of a wolf.

 

“Is that me?” Shade asked.

 

“I suppose it is,” Pendrake said. “When I have something to think about or a problem to solve, I make a toy. Sometimes I barely notice what it is I’m making.”

 

Pendrake poured two cups of tea from the pot hanging over the fire, and handed one to Will. They sat in chairs by the fire and Shade sat between them, his calm amber eyes watching both of them in turn.

 

“I’ve done much thinking about you, Shade,” Pendrake said. “Wondering how you came to be here in Fable.”

 

“I remember more now,” the wolf said. “More about the Old Ones, and before.”

 

“We would like to hear about it, if you’ll tell us.”

 

“There was a time,” Shade began slowly, “when my mate and I led our pack. We hunted in the forests. We did not speak as I do now. We knew the world with our eyes, ears and noses. Our life was sweet, and happy, until the ghoolcame who hunted us with fire and iron.”

 

“Nightbane, we call them,” Pendrake said. “Creatures who once served the dark power.”

 

The wolf made a noise of disgust in his throat. When he spoke again his voice was low and menacing. The change in it sent a shiver through Will.

 

“They snared us with nets and traps. The wolves they caught they bred to be like them, cruel and wicked. Then those wolves hunted us, too. Their own kind. One day the ghoolfound my mate alone and tried to take her. She was fierce and strong, my mate, and she fought. She fought, but they were too many.”

 

Shade was silent for a long time.

 

“I followed the tracks they left, to their camp,” he said at last. “I tore and killed many, and those that were left ran off, but they had pierced me with their iron in many places. I wandered. A fever burned in me. I could not hunt, could not eat. I came at last to a forest where I smelled a new scent, one that was unknown to me. The scent of folk like you. I did not know if it meant danger or not. I crept up to their dwellings, in a clearing in the woods, to see if this unknown scent meant danger. There were people there, working, talking, laughing together. I had never heard laughter. It sounded strange to me, and I think I would have liked it, but all I could feel was pain, and hate. And then I saw a child. A girl in a red cloak with a hood, going off into the forest by herself. She was carrying a basket covered in a cloth. I followed her. I was hungry, and I wanted to kill. The girl walked quickly, but I ran ahead of her and stood in her path. She was frightened, but she was brave, too. And she did not hate. I could see that in her eyes. She was not like the ghool.

 

“I turned and I ran. I ran without knowing where I was going, and then I came to a house that stood by itself in the forest. Good smells came from that house. Good things to eat. I could not stop myself this time. The door was open and I went in. There was an old woman there. She screamed and ran away. I let her go, and ate what food I could find. But it was too late. I felt the fever growing in me, from the iron of the ghool. I knew that no food would help me now. There was a bed in one corner. I climbed into it.

 

“I don’t know how long I lay there. After some time I heard a sound. The girl in the red cloak was standing in the doorway. She came toward the bed, but in the dark of the house she did not see me. She called out a greeting.  She thought I was the old woman. I stood up in the bed, ready to flee. My limbs were shaking and there was a rasp in my throat. The girl saw me then. She screamed. I leapt over her and bounded out of the door. I ran, with what was left of my strength. And when I could not run, I crawled. I heard the sounds of the girl’s folk following me. Their shouts, their anger. They were hunting for me, to kill me.”

 

“I know that story,” Will interrupted. “But it’s not the same as I heard it.”

 

“Stories never are,” Pendrake said. “That is how they live on. How did you escape, Shade?”

 

“I did not,” the wolf said. “Not from the death that was already in me. When I could crawl no further I dug a hole in the wet earth to lie in. I waited for sleep, and it came, and I forgot everything. There was no more time. Nothing. Then someone was there. I heard the tread of his feet on the earth and in my bones, waking me, but I knew he would not harm me. He spoke a name, and I knew it was my name. I rose and came to him. He put his hand upon me and I could run again.”

 

“Who was he?” Will said.

 

“He gave me a voice, andtaught me many things,” the wolf said, as if he hadn’t heard. “His name was … in the sound of the rain, and the light at sunset. We ran together in the moonlight. We rested under the trees when the sun was high. Sometimes we journeyed a great distance to meet the others like him. The Old Ones. The First Ones. We would meet them under a tree on a green hill. The tiny annoying ones, the ones you call wisps, would be there, too. And others, like me.”

 

“Other wolves?” Will asked.

 

“They had been given speech, like me, but they had other shapes of bird and beast. On the hill the Old Ones would dance and sing, and tell stories.”

 

 “The green mount of Peace,” Pendrake said. “The old chronicles say was where the Stewards met every year at Midsummer.”

 

“They did,” Shade said. “Until it was … changed. A sickness came over the land. Green, living things died. Ghool marched everywhere, burning and killing. We marched then too, in a great company. All who were friends of the Old Ones joined us. We met the armies of the ghool and we fought. We fought for a long time, and finally we began to drive them back. But then hecame. He came as a blinding light that was really darkness inside. Like a sun that gave no heat. He blinded and burned us and we were scattered far and wide, and many fell. Then my friend told me that there was something else for me to do. He told me to find the grove where he had woken me. He said I should sleep there, and when I woke I should travel, in the direction of the sun rising. He said that one day I would find someone lost who would need my help to find the gateless gate. My friend told me we would not see each other again. I did not want to leave him. But in the end … I did as he wished.”

 

The wolf nodded his head slowly.

 

“I did as he wished,” he said again, his voice little more than a whisper. “I traveled for a long time, and slept, and went on again. Until I found Will Lightfoot. Or he found me.”

 

“I’m glad of it,” Pendrake said with a smile. “And I am very glad you are coming with us on this journey, Shade.”

 

Will had been caught up in Shade’s story. Now he remembered why he had come to the toymaker’s door.

 

“But what will happen out there … to you and Rowen? It’s not right to put you all in danger.”

 

Pendrake set down his cup.

 

“Listen to me, Will,” he said. “Your arrival has stirred things that have remained quiet for too long, so that it was easy to ignore them. For one thing, you’ve reminded me that I have spent far too much time cooped up in this house, when I should be out there, in the Realm, travelling, learning, sharing my own knowledge. Otherwise I cannot call myself master of anything but a pile of dusty maps and books. And Rowen, as you may have noticed, can look after herself quite well. We will take this road together, and see where it leads.”

 

“But that’s just it,” Will said. “I don’t know what road to take. I don’t know where to start, or what direction to take. Am I just supposed to start walking and see where I end up?”

 

“Why not?” Pendrake shrugged. “It’s what folk in stories have always done.” His face softened and he smiled. “From my experience it’s usually better not to set out on journeys like this with too many plans and expectations. Or even much hope. We can discuss the various roads we might take, but I have a feeling you’ll know what to do, when the time comes. And it would be prudent, I think, to wait until the last possible moment to make the choice. That way there’s less chance of others learning our purpose.”

 

“You mean there might be spies here.”

 

“In Fable news spreads like fire in dry grass. Those who pass on such news might not intend harm, but it’s better to be cautious. If we don’t know where we’re going, no one else will, either. ”

 

Will nodded. He was suddenly very tired. The day he had stolen the motorcycle seemed long ago and far away.

 

“The thing is,” he said, “it was running off without knowing where I was going that started this whole thing.”

 

 

***

 

 

They did not set out for several days. Only when all of the scouts had reported in, and there was no stirring or rumour of danger in the Bourne did Pendrake feel it would be safe to leave Fable.

 

One morning, with Pendrake’s permission, Rowen took Will on a tour of Appleyard. They visited the lecture hall, and Will was surprised to see that the classrooms were very much like those back home, although the long wooden benches looked a lot less comfortable than the desks he was used to. In the grounds outside they met three novices, friends of Rowen, who had heard about the newcomer and wanted to see him for themselves. Pendrake had cautioned Will not to tell anyone where he had come from, but he hadn’t thought to make up a cover story. Now he wished he had. One of Rowen’s friends, a tall boy named Peter, wanted to know what part of the Bourne he had come from. Will glanced at Rowen helplessly.

 

“He’s not from here,” Rowen said quickly. “He’s from another country. The kingdom of … the motorcycles.”

 

“Never heard of it,” Peter said with a suspicious frown. He turned to Will. “Is it far away?”

 

“I think so,” Will said cautiously.

 

“You thinkso?” echoed one of the other novices, a girl named Maeve. “How can you not know?” Just then the bells at the Gathering House sounded the hour and Rowen’s friends hurried off to their lesson, much to Will’s relief.

 

Next they visited the smithy, a cave-like structure of black stone at the rear of the college, its air acrid and broiling from the forge fire. Through the smoke they could see a bearded man in a black apron working at an anvil, hammering at a red-hot bar of metal. Near him a boy not much older than Will, polishing a breastplate. Rowen explained that riders in training were apprenticed for a time to the armourer. In this way they learned the lore and craft of weapons, and helped to make their own armour and their first sword.

 

“But I haven’t seen anyone wearing armour,” Will said.

 

“They only wear it in battle,” Rowen said. “The forges have been working day and night lately. It’s not a good sign.”

 

They watched for a while as the boy set down the breastplate and then took up a mallet and tapped away at the pieces of a steel gauntlet, smoothing and shaping the thin metal. Sweat dripped from his forehead and his face was contorted into a grimace of concentration.

 

“Galen will be going out soon on his first quest,” Rowen said as they moved on, a hint of envy in her voice.

 

“By himself?”

    

“He’ll be apprenticed to a rider, until he’s earned his spurs and can ride out on his own. That’s what I’ll be doing in a few years, if all goes well.”

 

When they returned to the toyshop for the midday meal, Pendrake was there. He thought it would be a good idea for Will to get some training in defending himself before they left the city. Will agreed, eager to try out a sword.

 

And so Will and Rowen spent part of each day at Appleyard with Finn. On the first day they waited for him in the sparring ground, a circular field ringed with colourful pennants strung from tall poles. When the young man appeared he bowed slightly to them. Again Will had the feeling that Finn was not much older than him, but so much more assured and experienced. That hadn’t bothered him when they’d first met, but now, with Rowen present, Will was painfully reminded of the fact, and found himself hoping she wouldn’t stay around for this.

 

Finn had brought several wooden practice swords that he called bevins. Much of Will’s eagerness vanished when he saw them. They looked like toy swords that kids would play with.

 

“Let’s get started,” Finn said. “Are you joining us, Rowen?”

 

“No, I’ll just watch.”

 

Finn handed Will one of the bevins and showed him how to stand and hold the weapon in readiness. They sparred several times, and while Finn carefully pointed out what Will needed to learn, he never smiled or said anything encouraging. Each time they began again, Finn would repeat his instruction about how to stand and hold the sword. After a while Will grew impatient.

 

“I get that part,” he finally said.

 

In an instant, with a movement too quick for Will to follow, the bevin was out of his hand and in Finn’s, the point of the wooden blade at Will’s neck.

 

“How about this part?” Finn said coldly.

 

Will said nothing. He glanced at Rowen out of the corner of his eye and felt his face redden.

 

Finn handed back the bevin.

 

“In combat you always have two weapons,” he said. “Yours, and your opponent’s. Learn to use them both and you’ll never be unarmed. Let’s start again.”

 

Will threw down the bevin.

 

“This is a waste of time,” he said. “Where I come from we have better weapons than this.”

 

Finn picked up the sword.

 

“My family came from Elsewhere too,” he said. “A long time ago. Here in the Bourne we know about the powerful weapons they have there, but we’ve learned to be careful about what we use to protect ourselves. There are creatures here that cannot be harmed by anything that doesn’t come from the Realm. And we’ve found that some tools, no matter how helpful they seem at first, always end up serving our enemies.”

 

“Did anyone in your family ever go back to Elsewhere?”

 

“Not that I know of. When you’ve lived here a long time, you become more like one of the folk of the Realm, I think. It’s rare that one of them can cross over into other places. Some who try lose their way and are snared by … things.”

 

Finn held out the bevin.

 

“Which is why this is important,” he said. “Again.”

 

 

***

 

 

On the evening before their departure, the toymaker met Will, Rowen and Finn in his workshop. He pushed aside some of the clutter on his work desk and unrolled a large parchment map, placing tea cups and stones at the corners to keep it flat.

 

“Here we are,” Pendrake said, his hand on the map. “Will is setting out in search of a way home, and we are pledged to help him. And we must go quietly, and warily, to elude any pursuers.”

 

It was the map that Rowen had shown Will earlier. The travellers gathered around it and discussed the merits of the various roads they might take. It became clear to Will that no matter what direction they took, they would eventually come to lands where friendly folk were few and far between, and one could never be sure what lay around the next bend. Once, these ungoverned and little-known regions were considered one of the Bourne’s best defences, but over the years foul and dangerous things had crept slowly into them and made their dwelling there.

 

They talked about returning to the Wood, which stretched northeast from the city to the River Arrow, the Bourne’s eastern boundary. This was the place where Will had crossed into the Realm, and so it seemed the likeliest direction to begin a search for the way back. Moth had reported to Pendrake that there was no longer any sign of the fetches or the mirrors. But as the toymaker reminded everyone, the fetches likely could not have set the trap of the mirrors themselves. They were shadowbeings that moved only under the power of someone or something else. Going into the Wood might mean walking straight into the greatest danger.

 

They considered heading west,through the great forest of Eldark to the lands beyond.The ancient land of the Hidden Folk, before their exile, was in the west.

 

“As Rowen has said, the Hidden Folk know many paths others cannot find,” Pendrake said. “They could be of great help to us.”

 

Finn looked at the vast forest spreading across most of the western half of the map and shook his head.

 

“There are scouts and riders who know these woods far better than I do,” he said.

 

“Yes,” Pendrake said, “but those who’ve travelled a place often might not see what is right in front of them.”

 

He cautioned that when it came to the whereabouts of the Hidden Folk, nothing was certain. There were many tales of wanderers encountering the Hidden Folk in unlikely, farflung regions. And the forest, for that matter, held many dangers.

 

The other directions were carefully discussed and considered, but in the end, there was no clear answer to the question of the road they were best to take.

 

Pendrake noticed Will intent upon the map, his gaze travelling hopelessly over the many strange names.

 

“Tomorrow,” he said, placing a hand on Will’s shoulder, “we will go to the crossroads, and there a path will be chosen. Until then, let’s not worry over what hasn’t happened yet. Sleep is more important right now than plans. As a great loremaster once said, you have to walk a road with your feet.”

 

***

 

They started on their journey before dawn the next morning. As they were leaving the house, Pendrake gave Edweth its keys on a great iron ring.

 

“While I’m gone,” he said to her, “you will not clean my workshop.”

 

“Of course not, sir,” Edweth said, solemnly shaking her head.

 

The housekeeper put up a stern front as she bustled about, making sure that Will and Rowen’s packs contained everything they might need, without being too weighty. But as they said their farewells she gave both Rowen and Will a tight hug, and tears brimmed in her eyes. For the first time it occurred to Will that if his journey was successful, he would not be coming back here. He would never see this house, or Edweth, ever again. He had come to appreciate the housekeeper’s gruff good nature, and her cooking.

 

Finn met them at the doors of the Gathering House. This time he was wearing a long grey coat like the other knights-errant. As usual he had little to say, and only nodded to Will and Rowen without smiling. Will had seen knights coming and going on horseback, and he wondered out loud if that was how they were going to travel.

 

“There are few mounts to spare,” Finn said. “And on foot we’ll blend in better with the other travellers on the road. And we may find paths that would be missed from horseback.”

         

“Walking was how you found your way here, after all,” Pendrake told Will. “It’s often said that the secret paths are found by those who walk rather than run.”

 

As they were preparing to set out, Lord Caliburn arrived to see them off, though he had little to say. He surveyed their gear with a stern eye, and saved an especially dark look for the wolf.

         

“An unusual company,” he said. “You’re not likely to pass unremarked. Even in the Bourne that’s cause for concern. No road can be considered completely safe, not anymore.”

         

“No road ever was,” Pendrake said. “But we’re not without friends, even out in Wildernesse.”

         

“May these friends prove trustworthy,” Caliburn said.

         

He suggested that Will and the others take the high road south, which was well-travelled by members of the Errantry on their way to the citadel of Stonebow, three days distant, where they would find refuge if need be.

         

“We have considered the south road, along with all the others,” Pendrake said. “But it is Will’s choice to make.”

         

Lord Caliburn looked to be about to reply, but pursed his lips and said nothing. He gave them all one final wish for a safe journey and strode away.