The Perilous Realm Online

 

Book One: The Endless Road

Chapter Two

The girl hurried on and Will struggled to keep up with her. The wind had risen and branches whipped into his face as he plodded on. 

Finally, to his relief, the girl stopped. She held the lantern before her, and now it began to glow a soft, pale shade of blue.

Will turned in a circle. The woods looked the same as they did everywhere else, shadowy and cheerless.

“There’s nothing here,” he said, close to her ear. And then, as soon as he said it, he turned once more and peered into the darkness. A faint blue light glimmered in the dark, so faintly that he wasn’t sure it was really there. 

Will nudged the girl and pointed.

“That’s it,” she said with relief in her voice. “Every snug has its own waylight. It’s answering this one. Come on. There will be shelter, and food.” 

She started off in the direction of the light. The word foodmade Will aware how hungry he was. Despite the strange things the girl was saying, the thought of a roof over his head and a meal was enough to spur him on.

They hurried as quickly as they could, and the light grew stronger and flickered less, until at last they were stopped by a tangle of intertwined branches that blocked their way. In the midst of the branches, almost invisible in the shadows, was what appeared to be the gnarled trunk of a tree, until Will saw a polished wooden handle and realized it was a small door. A wicker lantern hung above it, and as Will and the girl approached, its blue light shone out even brighter, then dimmed to a faint pulsing glimmer and went out.

The girl tucked away her lantern, then turned the handle and pushed the door gently, opening it only a little way. Warm yellow firelight spilled out through the gap. She ducked her head inside and back out again.

“Come on,” she said to Will, and he followed quickly, not wanting to be left outside alone even for a moment. He ducked his head and squeezed sideways through the little door as she had.

Inside there was no one to be seen, but the room looked as though it had just been prepared for their arrival. Burning logs snapped and crackled in the stone fireplace at the far side of the small round room. A large iron pot of something that smelled delicious bubbled and steamed on the hearth. Everything was polished and tidy, and true to the name, snug. 

The girl quickly shut the door behind them. She untied her cloak, tossed it on a chair, then slid the ring from her long white hair and shook it out.

“What if those … things find this place?” Will asked.

“I don’t think they can,” the girl said, glancing at the door. “Anyhow it’s better being in here than out there.”

He wanted to ask her more about the pale figures, and why he had felt he knew them, but he suspected he wouldn’t like the answer any more than her other explanations.

Together she and Will approached the fire, drawn by its light and warmth. The girl took a ladle that hung by the pot, spooned up some of the steaming broth and blew upon it.

“Don’t we have to ask?” Will whispered.

“Ask who?” the girl said with a shrug. She sipped the broth, smacked her lips and smiled to herself. Will took a good look at her. Her face was thin and pale, but something in the way she stood, and the steadiness of her hand, told him she was stronger than she looked. Under her dark brows her grey eyes glittered in the firelight.

There were clay bowls and spoons on the mantel above the fire. The girl reached for two of the bowls and filled them with broth. She handed one to Will. He took it hesitantly, raised a spoonful to his lips, and tried the briefest of sips. It was tasty. Very tasty. He took a bigger spoonful, then another, and in a few moments he had finished the bowl. He wanted more, but waited to see what the girl would do. When she finished her bowl she set it down and dropped into a chair. 

“You said this place was called the Bourne,” he said. “Where is that?”

“It’s right here,” the girl said. “We’re in it.”

“I’ve never heard of it before. I was driving out of town, on my dad’s motorcycle. I didn’t get very far.”

The girl’s brow wrinkled. 

“Motorcycle,” she echoed. “That sounds like one of the Steam Guild’s inventions. What does it do?”

“It … well, it takes you places,” Will said. 

“But this wasn’t the place you wanted to go?”

“No. I was just …” 

He broke off, not knowing what to answer, and suddenly overwhelmed by all the strange things that had happened to him since he had taken off on his father’s bike.  

“When we get home we’ll talk to my grandfather,” she said. “He can help you, if anyone can.”

If anyone can,Will thought. That did not sound promising. 

The girl now refilled her bowl, and Will did likewise. After hours without food, he thought he had never tasted anything so delicious. The soup was made of potatoes and carrots and grains, as far as Will could tell, but the hot, peppery broth went a long way toward warming the chill and even some of the fear out of him. He finished quickly and reached for the ladle to pour himself another bowlful. Then he stopped and looked around the room.

“So we just … take whatever we want.”

“Yes.”

“But there must be a lot of people using these snugs.”

“Only those who know how to find them.”

“What happens if someone else comes here tonight?”

“In that case,” said a voice behind them, “you’ll have to fill another bowl.”

Will and Rowen whirled around. There in the open doorway stood a tall figure in

black.

“Moth?” Rowen whispered.

The figure stepped from the shadows into the flickering firelight. Will saw that it was a man, dressed all in worn-looking clothes that were odd and old-fashioned, like Rowen’s. His long hair was as sleek and dark as a crow’s wing. He carried a short curving bow over his shoulder and a leather quiver of grey-feathered arrows hung at his side. His eyes gleamed darkly in his dusky face.

“How did you find the snug?” Rowen asked warily, moving closer to Will. “You don’t have a waylight.”

“I have eye, ears, and a nose,” the stranger said. “And this wood is my home. I should know it pretty well, don’t you think?”

His voice had a cold, ringing quality that reminded Will of the sound of the mirrors.

He stood on his guard, ready to make a break for the door should Rowen give any sign, but she merely stared at the man as if undecided what to do.

“Why are you here?” she said at last.

The man called Moth turned and shut the door before answering.

“I might ask the same thing of you, Rowen of Blue Hill. I doubt your grandfather knows you’re out here tonight.”

“I was just …”

“Looking for adventure, I imagine. Well, you found some. More than you wanted, I think.”

Rowen appeared to be about to reply, but under Moth’s icy gaze she kept silent and lowered her head.   

“As for me, I came looking for foolish children with no idea what danger they are in,” Moth went on, a darker tone in his voice now. “And here you are, tucking in to a pleasant supper. Hollows have come to the Wood, Rowen.”

“I know that,” Rowen shot back. “We got away from them. They don’t scare me.”

“Perhaps they should,” Moth said. “These hollows are not just drifting without purpose, Rowen. They’re being led. Someone or something has brought them here.” Moth’s arresting eyes fell upon Will. “And there are other strangers in the Wood tonight, I see,” he added.

“This is Will Lightfoot,” Rowen said. “The hollows came after him.”

Moth made Will a slight bow.

“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” he said with a cold smile. “I am, as you’ve probably already gathered, the unwelcome Moth. Will, is it?”

Will looked at Rowen, who gave the slightest, almost imperceptible nod. There was something in Moth’s manner, a warning edge even to his smile, that kept him on his guard. 

“Will Lightfoot,” he said finally. 

“I met a Will once,” Moth said. “A fine wordsmith. A poet. It was a long time ago. ”

Moth’s way of speaking was strange. Old-fashioned, like the clothing he and Rowen wore. He carried what looked like a long sheathed knife on his belt, and on his back, Will now noticed, was slung a longer sword.The scabbard and hilt were pitch black and gleamed as if made of some dark lustrous stone. 

“We need to warn the Errantry about the hollows,” Rowen said.

“I’ve already done so,” Moth said. “And as pleasant as it is to chatter here by the fire, we had best leave. Whoever set those mirrors as a snare, it wasn’t the hollows. I’ll take you as far as the high road, and from there you will go straight home, Rowen, or I can’t answer for the consequences.”

Rowen kept silent and nodded her head. 

Moth went to the door, opened it and looked out. Lifting his arm he whistled, two strong, shrill notes. 

“What’s he doing?” Will whispered, but Rowen did not answer. She looked up and he followed her gaze, then jumped back in alarm as a large black bird swooped out of the darkness. The bird alighted on Moth’s outstretched arm. Its feathers fluttered a moment as it settled, and then it peered with its shining black eye into the snug.

“Morrigan, you know Rowen,” Moth said to the bird. “And this is Will Lightfoot. Will, this is Morrigan.”

“Hello,” Will said, and then felt foolish, for the bird only blinked and tilted its head inquisitively, as any bird might. It was a raven, Will guessed, that Moth had caught and trained. Then, to his surprise, the raven climbed Moth’s arm to his shoulder and uttered a series of soft croaks, purrs and clicks in his ear.

“She’s spoken with the lord of the owls,” Moth said. “The hollows are nowhere to be seen. We should go now, without more delay.”

Rowen took a dappled green cloak from a peg on the back of the door and handed it to Will.

“Whose is that?” Will asked.

“Yours, now,” Rowen said.

***

At times they followed a path, but often Moth led them away from it into the trackless woods. Several times he whispered for them to stop. Rowen and Will would crouch and wait while he went on ahead and then returned to say it was safe to continue. After a while Will noticed that he never came too close to him or Rowen. He kept himself always at a slight distance, even when they were halted together. Watching him, Will was strangely reminded of the cloven tree.

Once when Will and Rowen were crouched together, waiting for Moth, Will whispered, “What is he? I mean, he’s not … like us.”

To his surprise, Rowen laughed.

“In the Wood we’re the odd ones, not Moth,” she said. 

“What does that mean?”

“It means this is his home. He’s not from Elsewhere, like you. If I’m right about where you come from.”

“Where I come from?”

“We call it Elsewhere,” and Will realized she meant the word as a name. “Or sometimes it’s called the Untold.Grandfather says people from there are always trying to find their way here. Not many ever do.” 

“So … you’re from here, too?”

“Yes, but I’m also an outsider like you. My father was from Elsewhere.”

Outsider. Will opened his mouth and then closed it again. Every question he asked here only led to more questions.

“Some people say Moth was once a knight of the Hidden Folk,” Rowen went on quietly. “Something happened to him. I don’t know what, but Moth left his people and never returned. He came to live in the Wood a long time ago, Grandfather says. He protects it.” 

“You didn’t seem very happy he found us in the snug,” Will said.     

“I’ve only met him and Morrigan once before,” Rowen said, “When I was a little girl. After what I saw in the clearing, I wasn’t sure it was really him.”

Will pondered this, and then a new thought occurred to him.

“He told you to go straight home. Where’s that?”

“I live in the city of Fable,with my grandfather.”

Suddenly Moth was there in front of them. He held a finger to his lips and beckoned them to follow.

He led them downhill now, past large moss-cloaked boulders and over fallen logs. A dim grey light grew around them, and Will wondered how long they had spent in the snug. He had thought it was less than an hour, but out here the night already seemed to be ending. As they descended the hillside and came out onto flatter ground, thin wisps of fog curled about their feet.A fine drizzling mist began to fall. The thick woods had been left behind, and now they were crossing a rolling, stony meadowland dotted with clumps of fir and pine. 

Without warning Moth halted and crouched. He gestured for Will and Rowen to do the same.        

“What is it?” Will said.

Silence,” Moth hissed. “Stay behind me and do not move.” 

He slid the bow off his shoulder and notched an arrow in the string.

Will peered into the dimness, and after watching tensely for a while he thought he could see something moving. At first it was little more than a faint disturbance in the gloom, but slowly it grew and took form as a pale, shifting shadow. At one moment it had a manlike shape, with arms that groped through the murk, then it twisted and shrank, and then, as Will watched, it transformed again into something to which he could give no name: a wispy, churning formlessness that seemed to be little more than fog taking greater substance. Rowen gripped Will’s arm, and he realized that she was as frightened as he was.

A shrill cry went up from somewhere nearby. It sounded to Will like the terrified shriek of a child. The shapechanging form halted, and for the first time it made a sound, a kind of dry, whistling moan that, if it hadn’t made his skin crawl, Will might have mistaken for the wind. The shadowy shape turned slowly, swaying from side to side. The child’s cry sounded again, and the thing melted into the shadows.

Rowen’s grip on Will’s arm relaxed. She let out a long breath.   

“What’s making that sound?” Will whispered.

“It is a hollow,” Moth said. “My people call them unnai, hungry ghosts. They wander the Realm, clinging to the shadows but seeking flesh and blood folk like you and me, to feed off the living spirit within us. They are weak, solitary shades that can easily be avoided, if one is watchful. But these hollows are not like others I have seen. They have come together with purpose. Someone else’s purpose, it would seem. That sound it’s making is a call to the others. They’re hunting us, like a pack of wolves.”

“The child. Shouldn’t we help it …”

“That was no child. It was Morrigan, leading the hunt away from us.”

As they set off again, there came a harsh croak from high above. The raven came swooping down out of the mist to light on Moth’s arm. Morrigan chattered quickly in her strange, guttural tongue, and then, with another softer croak, she flew off again.

“We’re almost there,” Moth said. “Morrigan thinks we can risk the road.”

He led them onto a narrow path, which wound through the meadowland and then dipped down sharply, curved around a rocky bend, and came out into a rolling plain. Here their path joined a wider road paved with flagstones. The sky was even lighter now, with the first red hints of the sun touching the clouds.

“We must part company here,” Moth said. “I will search for the mirrors, and drive off the hollows if I can. Morrigan will keep watch on you from above until you reach the city. Good luck, Will Lightfoot. I hope you find your way home.”

At a word from Moth the raven soared into the hazy air. Will watched her go. When he lowered his gaze, Moth was no longer with them.

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