The Perilous Realm Online

Book One: The Endless Road

Chapter Three

Rowen and Will hurried along the road, passing stone farmhouses with pale smoke rising from their chimneys into the air. The rain began to fall in earnest. Once a small dog darted out from an open gate in a hedge and trotted along with them a short distance before dashing back the way it had come. Such a familiar sight, like something he might have seen on his own street, cheered Will a little. Then he thought about his father. He had taken off on the motorcycle hours ago, when Dad was sleeping. Had he woken up from his latest all-night binge? Had he even noticed yet that Will and the bike were gone?          

They passed a few other travellers approaching the city. Most plodded along wearily with bundles on their backs. There were also a couple of lone riders who seemed lost in their own thoughts. Most of the people heading to the city wore the same strange old-fashioned clothing as Rowen and Moth, but some were dressed in even more outlandish garb. And a few, Will noticed with a shock, might not be called quite human. He caught glimpses of a goatish face on one traveller, and eerie catlike eyes gleamed out at him from under the hood of another.

          “Who are these people?” he whispered. 

          “Most are farmers bringing their wares to market. But some are folk from other lands. That’s not unusual, but still, the high road is never this busy so late at night.”

          After a time flickering lights appeared dimly through the rain. The road descended another slope and rounded a stand of trees, and there before them lay Fable. Will was surprised to see that the city had been built on an island in a river, its lamps and lighted windows reflected in the water that flowed around it. At the near end the streets came right down to a long wooden dock at the river’s edge, where there were boats moored, and a bridge arched across the stream. At the other end the city’s roofs and spires rose to a wooded hilltop, where a bright beacon shone. 

          Will and Rowen crossed the bridge and came to the city’s main gatehouse, which looked like a castle in minuature with turrets and many-coloured flags, and two arched windows of stained glass. The window on the left depicted a delicate starshaped flower of five white petals on a field of blue. The window on the right held an image of a gushing fountain of water in the shape of a tree.  

          As they approached, something odd about the city’s walls caught Will’s eye. He thought they were made of narrow rectangular stones, but from closer up he could see faint markings on many of them, thin lines and shapes traced in gold and silver. On some of the stones, there were words…

          “They’re books,” Will said in amazement. 

          “Yes,” Rowen said. “Much of the streets are, too,” she added, pointing to their feet. Will looked down. What he had thought were bumpy cobblestone were the spines of more books.

          “There was a great library here once, a very long time ago,” Rowen said. “The greatest library in all the world, with miles and miles of bookshelves, Grandfather says. It was destroyed in the First War of the Realm. Some kind of dark magic consumed it and turned the books to stone, so that no one could use the knowledge in them. Like what happens sometimes with very old dead trees that have become hard, like rocks. If you dug up one of the bookstones you couldn’t open it, to read it. They’re not really books anymore. So the people who founded Fable, a long time later, used the remains of the library to build their city.”

          Once inside the gates, Rowen and Will entered a wide, tree-lined street of shops and stalls, their brightly-painted signs advertising food and drink of every kind. To Will’s surprise, the shops were already open and doing business. People in cloaks and long coats were hurrying to and fro through the rain. From the open door of what appeared to be a tavern came rollicking music of voices singing along to pipes and drums. From another door wafted the enticing scent of baking.

          The street was lined with lamps that in the light of early morning still gave off a pale blue glow. Some of the new arrivals seemed to know where they were going, but others stopped and stared about them, clearly as unfamiliar with the city as Will was. Here and there, what looked like bright, tiny stars went speeding and darting through the air. Fireflies, Will thought, though these creatures, whatever they were, seemed to know where they were going and were hurrying to get there.

          “There’s no place like this where I come from,” Will said.

          “I don’t think there’s a place like this anywhere,” Rowen said. “Fable is a kind of crossroads, Grandfather says. And a haven. Folk from all over pass through this city. Some come from very far away.”

          Despite the strangeness of what he was seeing, Will felt the desire to linger. He was very hungry, for one thing, but Rowen kept on, up along the steep climbing curve of the street, the direction of the hilltop. 

          A series of worn stone steps—once again, made of petrified books—led them to a bridge over a narrow canal. A tall, narrow building of bookstones and wooden beams stood over the midpoint of the bridge. Rowen and Will passed beneath, through an arched passageway. There was a staircase on each side, leading up into the building. 

         “The Inn of the Golden Goose,” Rowen said. “It’s a good place to hear stories from other lands. My grandfather and I go there often.”

          On the far side of the bridge they went under a stone arcade, up a long curving flight of steps and out again into another crowded thoroughfare. A little further the rising street ended at a high wall covered in thick ivy. In the centre of the wall stood two massive doors of dark polished wood braced with iron. They were closed, but within one of the two larger doors a smaller door stood open.

          “Appleyard,”Rowen said. “Home of the Errantry.”

          “You said that word before,” Will said. “Errantry. To Moth, in the snug. Who is that?”

          “It’s more like a they,” Rowen said. “Errantry is what you learn here. Riding, fighting, tracking. Skills to defend the Bourne, and help those in need. When you complete your training, you join the Errantry.”

          “Do you go there?”

          “My grandfather doesn’t want me to, but I’ve already started sword practice, and scouting training. My mother was a rider of the Errantry, and I’m going to be one, too.”

          “So they teach you to become a … warrior?”

          Rowen considered this for a moment.

          “You’ve heard of the Knights of the Round Table, haven’t you?”

          “Yes.”

          “The Errantry is something like that. In fact, when Arthur Pendragon stayed in Fablefor a while he drew up the code of rules that the Errantry still follows.”

          “Wait. You mean King Arthur?”

          “Of course. Who else? After his last battle he came back to the Realm to be healed. I thought that story was well-known where you come from.”

          “I  suppose so, but I didn’t think …  I mean, he’s not real.”

          Rowen stared at him, then turned away and raised her hand.

          “Here we are,” she said.

          Will thought Rowen meant the gate, but then he saw she was pointing to a narrow, curving lane that opened off the main street. They followed it to its end, passing several shops on the way. Will saw signs for a shoemaker, a bookbinder, an apothecary (whatever that was) and a tailor. At the end of the lane stood a strange building, a tall terraced house, somewhat like those Will had already seen, but narrower and faced with dark green and grey bookstones, in a neat and pleasing checkerboard pattern. Arched, shuttered windows climbed in a curious ziz-zag pattern to an ornate turreted roof. The house leaned slightly into the street and was so crooked-looking that it seemed only to be standing thanks to the two stockier buildings that flanked it.

          Rowen went up to the front door. She spoke a hushed word and a moment later it opened.

          “After you,” she said.

          Inside, Will found himself in a long hall that seemed brilliantly lit after the long walk though the dim streets. Once his eyes had adjusted to the blaze of the overhead lamps, he saw two things that struck him. First was that the house seemed larger on the inside, wider and more spacious, than it had from outside. And second were the toys.

          There were toys everywhere. Colourful marionettes and lifelike birds hung from the ceiling. The shelves lining the hall were crowded with miniature animals of every description, including strange creatures Will had never seen before, as well as tops and whirligigs, boats, intricate little dolls’ houses and castles, chess sets, hoops and balls, marbles, and various odd, unknown contraptions made of wood, metal, wire and string.

          At the far end of the hall rose a winding staircase. When Rowen reached it and bounded up the first few steps, she nearly collided with a tiny, apple-cheeked woman in an apron who was coming down. The woman shrieked and the stack of folded linen she had been carrying flew up and scattered over the stairs.

          “Rowen!” the woman gasped, sitting down on the step and pressing a hand to her bosom. “You’ll send me to my deathbed someday, child.”

          “I’m sorry, Edweth,” Rowen said. “I just got back to the city and I need to see grandfather.”

          “Who has been worried sick about you, young lady, going off by yourself like that.”

          The woman glanced sideways at Will as she proceeded to gather up the scattered linen. Rowen hurried to help her.

          “Filthy!” Edweth gasped, batting Rowen’s hand away.

          “This is Will Lightfoot,” Rowen said. “He needs Grandfather’s help.”

          “Well,” the woman said with a curt nod at Will, “the master is not here at the moment and who knows when he’ll be back. He’s gone to a meeting of the Council. Something has all the wise and mighty in a flap.”

          “I must find him,” Rowen said. “I have important news. Can Will stay here while I’m gone? He’s come from … from far away.”

          Edweth now took a long, hard look at Will. He felt himself turn scarlet.

          “I suppose he may stay,” she finally said. “I’m sure your grandfather will be happy to see you safe and sound, Rowen, but don’t be surprised if you can’t hold his attention. I haven’t seen him so distracted for a good long while.”

          “Did he say what …” Rowen began, then pursed her lips. “I’ll find out.”

          The woman shrugged.

          “It’s business I don’t poke my nose into. But I know you won’t get into the council chambers dressed like that. Your clothes, child. You look as if you’ve been traipsing through the middle of Toadmarsh.”

          Rowen grinned. “Maybe I have,” she said. “But there’s no time to change. This is urgent.”

          Edweth sighed. 

          “It always is. But you will take a dry cloak. That much I insist on. Your grandfather is untidy enough without you following in his footsteps.”

          Rowen  gave an impatient sigh and dashed up the stairs. Edweth began to gather up the linen, then she studied Will again, and her gaze softened.

          “So you come from far away, do you?” she said with a knowing look. “That’s a big place, I’ve been told. As easy to get lost there as it is in these parts.”

          “I’m not lost,” Will said. “I just don’t know where I ….” 

          He trailed off sheepishly. The housekeeper nodded.

          “You’re in Pendrake’s Toyshop in Pluvius Lane. That’s a good place to be, whether you’re lost or not.”

          “I won’t be staying long,” Will said. “But thank you.” 

          “You can save your thanks for the master of the house,” Edweth said. “But in the meantime, while you are here you will not be treated poorly.”

          Rowen came bounding back down the stairs, tying the cord of a new cloak around her neck. At the bottom she paused and sniffed.

          “Do I smell oranges?”

          “The road to the Sunlands is open again,” Edweth said. “There was even chocolate at the market yesterday.”

          “I hope you bought some,” Rowen said. At the door she turned to Will. “Please stay here. You’re safe in this house. Edweth used to slay ogres for a living.”

          “Off with you now,” the housekeeper snapped. 

          Rowen laughed and hurried out the door. 

          “Come with me, Master Lightfoot,” Edweth said. “We shall get you settled in.” 

          She went up the stairs and Will followed, noting that here, too, the walls were inset with niches, but here they were filled not with toys, but with books. Actual books that one could open and read, by the look of it, Will thought. At last they reached a landing with four doors. Edweth took a key from a pocket in her apron, opened one of the doors, and gestured for Will to precede her inside. 

          He found himself in a small room, with stone walls hung with colorful tapestries depicting odd, intertwining figures of plants, birds and beasts. There was a four poster bed against the far wall, a writing desk and chair next to it, a mirror in one corner and a tall wardrobe in another. Will was reminded a little of the snug in the woods, but this room seemed more polished, less secretive and ancient.

          “Here we are,” said Edweth, “I hope this will serve. Morning’s come but if you need rest after your travels, feel free.”

          “No, I’m fine,” Will said. “I’ll wait until Rowen gets back.”

          “Well, then, let me make you something to eat. And I will heat some water, too, so you can bathe, if you please.”

          She spoke these last words with a meaning arch of her eyebrows, and Will wondered just how bad he looked, and smelled, after all he had been through. Edweth pointed to a door that Will had not noticed.

          “You’ll find the bath in there,” she said. “Give me a few minutes, and then pull the cord above the tub, and it will fill with hot water. Pull it again when the bath is full.”

          She must have noticed the look of surprise on his face, for she added,

          “This isn’t a snug in the Wood,young man. We do things for ourselves here.”

          “No, that’s not it,” Will said. “I just didn’t think you’d … you know … have running water.” 

          As soon as the words were out, he blushed again. Edweth’s smile was more like a wince.

          “If you know what a bath is,” she said, heading for the door, “then you’ll know how to use it. I will bring you some fresh clothes. When you’re ready to eat, just follow your nose.”

          After the housekeeper had gone, Will explored the room. On the desk was a thick bookstone with a clock face set into its front cover, an ink bottle and a quill pen. He opened the drawers of the table and found a stack of blank writing paper. In the wardrobe were several woven blankets, thick folded cloths that Will supposed were towels, and feather pillows, all neatly arranged on shelves. 

          Will took a towel, went into the inner room and undressed. After waiting what he hoped was a long enough time, he pulled the tasseled cord above the bath. A stream of hot water gushed out of a stone pipe overhead and splashed into the tub. When it was half full he shut off the water and took a very brief bath, feeling uncomfortable at being naked in a strange house. 

          In the water he examined his various bruises and scratches. The only proof of the strange, terrifying events of the last few hours.

          “What is this place?” he said out loud. 

          After he was done washing he went back into the other room and found clean clothes laid out on the bed. He dressed slowly, uncertain about these unfamiliar garments and exactly how they were supposed to be worn. When he was finished he stood in front of the mirror and inspected himself. He was wearing a white cotton shirt and a green waistcoat, knee-length grey woollen breeches, white stockings, and black buckled half-boots. The fabrics felt odd, rough and uncomfortable, and none of it exactly fit him, but the face that stared back at him was definitely the face of the Will Lightfoot he knew. He turned away, afraid he would see those others eyes again, watching him. Aware of him. When he dared another glance, it was still his own reflection looking back at him. 

          Rowen had said his own country was called Elsewhere. To him it felt as if that’s where he was now. They had walked a long way from the place where he was sure—fairly sure—the motorcycle was still lying. 

          He thought of the last time he had spoken to his mother. She was in the hospital by then, and he was sitting by her bedside. It was a few days before she died. His father had gone off somewhere—probably to have a drink—and Will was watching his mother while she slept. She spent much of the time asleep now, because of her pain medication the doctor had said. Will was softly stroking her arm and crying when suddenly she opened her eyes and looked at him.

          “What’s wrong, honey?” she asked. It was clear she had forgotten where she was and what was happening to her. All she knew was that Will was sad and she wanted to comfort him, as she always did when he was unhappy or frightened.

          “Nothing,” he had said. He didn’t want to remind her that she was dying.  

          She took his hand in hers. She tried to squeeze it comfortingly but she hardly barely any strength left.

          “It’s going to be okay, Will,” she said. “Everything will be all right. You’ll see.”

          He sat now in this strange room, in an even stranger place, and remembered her words. How things could ever be all right again he couldn’t see. He was in trouble back home, and he was in trouble here, too, if Rowen was right about those hollows being after him. 

          There was nowhere left for him to go. 

***

As Edweth suggested, Will followed his nose, and soon the enticing aromas of frying food led him downstairs to the kitchen. From hooks in the walls hung shining pots and kitchen tools, and a roughhewn table with chairs stood in one corner. Edweth brusquely invited Will to sit there. She had cooked sausages and eggs and toast, and set a heaping plate before him, which he proceeded to wolf down hungrily.

          While he ate, Edweth sat beside him and asked him about how he had come to be here. She was careful not to pry, he noticed, but soon her concern for him got the better of her.

          “Is anyone missing you back home?” she asked gently.

          “I don’t know,” he said, and after a moment added, “It doesn’t matter.”

          When he had finished eating, Edweth told him he could explore the house. 

          “The things you shouldn’t touch will be behind locked doors,” she said. “But there’s lots here to look at, and plenty of books to read. Just put them back where you found them. Master Pendrake doesn’t like it when his things aren’t where he left them.”

          “I won’t touch anything,” Will said firmly.

          He left the kitchen then and wandered along the curving passageway to a spacious, high-ceilinged chamber, with hanging tapestries like those in his room. There was a large stone fireplace here, although no fire was burning in it. High-backed chairs were ranged around a large round table of dark polished wood. On the table was a large marble chess board, the pieces scattered across it as though someone was in the middle of a game. Will looked more closely at the large, painted chess pieces. Some were familiar, like the knights on horseback, but others were strange to him. One was a tall, hooded figure in white that troubled him for some reason he did not understand. 

          In one corner stood a suit of armour, its steel plates tarnished to a yellowish-grey and much marred with cracks and dents. As Will inspected it, he tried to recall what Rowen had told him about the Errantry.Dingy and battered, the armour didn’t seem to fit well with anything else in the room. He wondered why Rowen’s grandfather, this man that Edweth called the master, bothered to keep it, or didn’t have it polished up at the least.

          Confronted once again with questions rather than answers, Will wandered out in the corridor, found the staircase and began to climb. He passed the shelves without paying them much attention, but he noticed that many of the books had no title on the spine. Those that did consisted of strange words he didn’t know.

          On the next floor he found all the doors closed except one, which was wide open and showed him a room exactly like the one he had been given. Then he noticed what was different: the light blue tunic lying across the bed as though it had been casually tossed there. The open books on the writing table and others piled haphazardly beside it on the floor. One of the wardrobe doors was open, and hanging from a hook was Rowen’s travel-stained red cloak. 

          Alarmed at the thought that Rowen might find him nosing around her room, Will turned to leave. As he did he caught a glimpse of something that stopped him in his tracks: on the wall above the writing table hung a small woven tapestry depicting a man and a woman. The woman was dressed much like Rowen, but the man wore clothing that was familiar to Will’s eyes, and gave him a surge of hope that maybe he wasn’t as far from home as he seemed to be. The man was dressed like someone Will might have met on the streets of his own town.

          Remembering where he was, Will backed slowly out of the room and his foot slid beneath him. He regained his balance and looked down. There was a puddle of water on the floor. He thought at first that Rowen must have tracked the water in with her from outdoors, and then he heard the sound of steady dripping nearby. He turned, searching, and soon located the source: water was trickling down the stairs from the floor above.

          By now Will had lost track of what floor he was on and where his own room was, and so his first thought was that he had left the water running in the bath. He remembered pulling the cord to shut off the tap, but perhaps something had gone wrong and it had started flowing again. His impulse was to run downstairs and tell Edweth, but he thought of how this would look to Rowen’s grandfather, someone coming into his house uninvited and then flooding it. He would have to deal with this himself, and hope nobody else found out.

          Will hurried up the stairs to the next landing. Here the walls were bare stone, without shelves, toys or books. The corridor was in near darkness, as there were no lamps and no windows. Warily, Will followed a slender rivulet of water on the floor and at the far end of the corridor found it seeping from under a door. A narrow and rough-hewn door, not smoothly polished like those on the floors below. There was no sound from inside. 

          Will stepped back into the middle of the corridor and looked around.

          “Hello,” he said as loudly as he dared, which wasn’t very loud. “Is anybody there?”

          No one answered. Will pushed the door, expecting it to be locked.

          The door opened easily. The space inside was dark. And it was raining.

          There was no roof that Will could see, and no back wall. Just two side walls and a stone floor that receded into darkness. A shrieking wind flicked icy droplets of rain into his face. From somewhere far inside the room, if it was a room, lightning flashed. It was impossible, but somehow there was a storm inside the walls of this house.

          Will stumbled back. He turned to run and collided with someone who gave a loud grunt. Will fell backwards onto the floor. When he sat up with his ears ringing, he was facing an older man in a long, dark green coat who was also sitting on the floor, his spectacles tilted crookedly on his nose and a stunned look on his bearded face. Between the two of them stood Rowen, staring at them both in shock. 

          “Grandfather, are you …” she began.

          “Nothing damaged, Rowen,” the old man muttered, “except perhaps my dignity.” 

          “I’m sorry, I was–” Will stammered, scrambling to his feet.

          “Never mind,” the old man said as he picked himself up off the floor. “I expect we’ll both recover.”

          “This is Will Lightfoot, Grandfather,” Rowen quickly said. “Will, this is my grandfather, Nicholas Pendrake.”

          The old man brushed at the front of his coat and then looked over his crooked spectacles with wide eyes, but not at Will. He was gazing at the open door of the room.

          “The cabinet is open,”he said, as if such a thing was unheard of. Will noticed at the same moment that it was no longer raining inside the room. It was just an ordinary empty room now, no bigger than a closet, with a back wall, a ceiling, and a puddle of water on the floor. 

          “I told Grandfather everything,” Rowen said to Will. “He can help you find your way back home.”

          “I will certainly try, Rowen,” Pendrake said with an uneasy frown.

          Will looked up into the old man’s mild grey eyes.

          “Thank you,” he said, “but I’m not going back. There’s nothing for me there.”

          Pendrake pulled shut the door of the strange room.

          “Well, Will Lightfoot, as it turns out, you can’t go back,” he said, straightening his spectacles. “At least not the way you came. You can only go on.”

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