The Perilous Realm Online Part 9

Book One: The Endless Road 

 

CHAPTER NINE

 At dawn the next morning the travellers set out reluctantly into a cold and damp fog that took its time drawing off. Eventually the sun won through and warmed them as they walked. Birds sang, and the road wove its way among low hills dotted with sweet-smelling flowers. They passed another road with a signpost that read Molly’s Arm, 4 miles, and Pendrake told a funny tale about the people who lived there. They were exiled Storyfolk who had once lived in houseboats on the Eastern Sea, and even now they insisted on living in boats, on dry land. Their village was on a hill overlooking the forest, and the wind passing over the treetrops that rippled in waves had become their seascape. When they went hunting in the forest they called it fishing. Will and Rowen smiled at the story, and even Finn seemed to be enjoying the day. Will had almost forgotten where they were making for when all at once they came around a rocky hillock and there before them was the forest of Oldark.

 

Will halted and stared in stunned silence. He had glimpsed the forest from a distance, but hadn’t realized how big the trees really were. Their huge trunks, some straight and smooth and others crooked and gnarled, towered far over his head, rising to vast canopies of leaves like green clouds. The fog of early morning seemed to have lingered under the trees after the sun had burned it away everywhere else. The vaults of the forest were hazy and full of shifting shadows.

 

Will looked to see if there might be a more inviting way in, but the closely-gathered trees made a high, dark wall running north and south as far as the eye could see.

 

He suddenly felt very small.

 

That’s a forest,” he said.

 

A hush seemed to have fallen over everything. There was a faint stirring of wind through the leaves and now and then the creak of a treelimb that only served to make the eerie quiet even more unsettling.

 

“The Deep Dark Forest,” Pendrake said. “It holds as many tales as it does trees, they say.”

Shade did not hesitate. He loped eagerly onward, and with less enthusiasm they followed him in under the gloom of the great trees.

The road they had been on now narrowed to a winding track. There was no breeze under the dark green roof of leaves. It was as if the forest itself was holding its breath. In places the great mossy roots of the trees reached over the path like archways, and overhead their branches seemed almost to be knotted together, forming a leafy roof through which the sunlight pierced in thin slanting columns.

 

After they had gone a short distance they heard the shrill cry of a bird. Finn halted, put his fingers to his lips and made an answering sound. Not long after, a young woman appeared before them out of the shadows. She was cloaked in dappled green, with a deep hood shadowing her face. Will stepped back in alarm, but Finn raised a hand in greeting. He went to the woman and they spoke together in low voices. Then, as quickly as she appeared, the hooded woman turned and melted back into the trees.

 

“Fox Company reports the eaves of the forest are quiet,” said Finn. “Nothing unusual under their watch.”

 

After a while the path began to wind steadily upward, through stands of towering pine and fir, from which squirrels chittered at them as they passed. The sun here was brighter, and the steep climb was hot work. Will sipped often from his water flask and quickly emptied it. Finn saw this and shared his flask with Will.

 

“You have to be careful with the water,” he said. “It could be a while before we find more.”

 

Will’s father always said the same thing whenever they went hiking, he remembered with a pang of regret. He’d always thought it was useless advice, since they never went very far on their walks.

 

At the top of the highest rise, which was open to the sky, they halted briefly to catch their breath. From this height Will was surprised to see only treetops, a great rolling carpet of treetops, stretching away to the horizon in every direction. He had not imagined they had come so far into the forest already.

 

They descended under the trees, and after another hour’s walk came to a narrow stone bridge over a stream. Here they refilled their flasks and rested. Shade lapped thirstily at the water, then flopped down on the bank with a contented sigh. The surface of the stream was as still and silent as glass, except where it spilled over a rock ledge. Even here the water uttered only the faintest musical trickle.

 

Will turned from the stream and saw Finn nearby, sitting cross-legged on a flat stone with his sword lying across his legs. The young man was so still that Will was intrigued. He came closer.

 

“What are you doing?” he asked.

 

“Sitting,” Finn said matter-of-factly, without looking at Will. “It’s part of our training.”

 

Will grinned.

 

“They teach you to just sitthere?”

 

“They teach us to be still and calm, no matter what’s happening. Then even in battle you can be like this, inside.”

 

He took a deep breath and fell silent. Will stood there a moment longer, then turned abruptly and walked away along the stream. In battle, he thought, and glanced at Rowen, who had sat down next to Shade and was scratching the wolf between his ears.

 

Will kept walking past them and came to a cool, shady spot where two large willow trees grew side by side. They were bowed so that the space between them, curtained with drooping catkins,looked like the mouth of a small cave. Will drew closer. He felt a sensation in his stomach like the butterflies he always got on a fairground ride. A kind of excitement and fear mixed together, with a disturbing feeling that what he did next mattered, though he didn’t know why.

 

Cautiously he peered into the dim space between the trees. There didn’t seem to be any danger. And in fact he could see a leafy flicker of sunlight in the depths of the shadows. A few steps and he would be on the other side of this little cave of branches. It would only take a moment.

 

He ducked under the twined arms of the willows and down into a damp, dark hollow, brushing thick bunches of drooping leaves out of his way. When he looked back, he could still see the mouth of the cave, although it seemed much further away than he would have expected. The walls of the hollow grew closer, and as he placed his hands against them to steady himself in the dark, he was surprised to feel not leaves and branches but something cold and smooth.

 

He had no time to wonder about it, because just then he stepped out into the light.

 

He was in a meadow of tall grass, dotted with white flowers and alive with the hum of bees. There was a hill just ahead of him, a long rolling, sandy-coloured hill that was somehow very odd, though he couldn’t put his finger on what bothered him about it. From somewhere came a deep, low rumbling.

 

For an instant he had the wild hope that he had found it, the clearing with the cloven tree. The tunnel under the willows must be one of those farholds, the wishing portals that Pendrake had spoken about. Then he looked closer at the hill, and saw that it looked very much like a gigantic human form, stretched out upon the ground and dressed in animal hides of different colours. There were things that resembled very large feet, far off at one end, with enormous toes, and at the other end, nearer to Will, was a huge bare lump of smooth pink stone, very much like a lumpy bald head, half hidden in a stand of trees.

 

Then the hill moved.

 

Moments later Will was back through the tunnel under the willows and among his friends, gasping out the tale of what he had seen.

 

“It’s just over there, on the other side of those trees,” he said breathlessly, gesturing back the way he had come. “It’s someone big. Someone sleeping who’s big. Very big. Huge.”

 

He would not say the word. No. It could not be true, and saying the word would make it true.

 

“You mean a giant?” Rowen asked.

 

“I will have a look,” Finn said.

 

“I’m coming too,” Rowen said eagerly, but Finn shook his head. Drawing his sword, he walked over to the willows, ducked into the tunnel and vanished. A very short time later he was back.

 

“All that’s on the other side of these trees is more trees,” he said with a shrug. “I saw nothing bigger than a squirrel.”

 

“I don’t understand,” Will said. “It was just on the other side.”

 

Pendrake placed a hand on Will’s shoulder.

 

“Show me what you found,” he said, and followed Will into the tunnel under the trees. As they neared the far end, Will stopped.

 

“It’s just out there,” he whispered. “It could be waiting for us.”

 

“Then let’s not keep it waiting any longer,” Pendrake said, and he led the way out into the meadow, Will trailing behind the toymaker and ready to run.

 

There he was. A reclining figure the size of a hill, clothed in a hide of wrinkled hides, with its bald head under the leafy shade of a stand of trees. That giant’s breath was the low rumbling Will had heard.

 

“We don’t need to be afraid,” Pendrake said. “I’ve met him before. A gentle soul. Never squashed a peasant’s hut or stole a golden harp, that I’ve heard of. Prefers sleep to just about anything.”

 

“You’re sure it’s thatone, not some other …” Will whispered, still poised to bolt at the slightest movement other than the slow rise and fall of the giant’s breathing.

 

In answer Pendrake pointed into the distance.

 

“That sharp-peaked hill over there is called the Targe. This is where he lives. I’ve been here before, and spoken with him.”

 

Will nodded, too disappointed about not finding a farhold to care very much about the name of a hill.

 

“The Targe is three days’ journey from where we left Rowen and the others,” Pendrake added.

 

“What do you mean?” Will asked. “They’re just on the other side of those trees.”

 

“They are, and they aren’t,” Pendrake said. “That tunnel under the willows is a knot-path. Although they may seem very short, knot-paths cross great distances. That is how they get their name. It’s like tying a knot in a piece of string. The knot makes the string of your journey shorter. They were once paths between all the kingdoms of the Realm, they say, but now most of them simply lead from one part of the wild to another.”

 

“Then where are we?”

  

“About twenty leagues southwest, as Morrigan would fly, from where our friends are waiting for us. Tell me why you decided to go through the tunnel.”

  

“I felt like … there was something for me to do here. As if everything was waiting for what I chose next. I don’t know how to explain it.”

 

“No need to try. Pay attention to that sense, Will. It will serve you well.”

 

“Why didn’t Finn find the knot-path?”

 

“Because he is not you,” Pendrake said, and just then there issued a louder rumble from the sleeping figure, and a thunderous snort, and then the vast form turned over with a sound like a landslide, and they saw, through a screen of leaves, his hairy face and his huge eye blinking, sleepily regarding them.

 

Pendrake raised a hand in greeting. The giant’s eye widened a moment and then slowly closed.

 

“Let’s go,” Pendrake said quietly, and they turned back to the tunnel.

 

“I thought I’d found the clearing,” Will said as they came out the other end of the tunnel. “The place I came into the Realm.”

 

“I’m afraid not,” Pendrake said, “but you have discovered something important, nonetheless.”

 

When they reappeared, Rowen and the others were there, waiting. The toymaker quickly explained what Will had found.

 

“It’s a good thing the path led back to the place you came from,” Finn said. “I’ve heard it said that not all of them do.”

 

“Where would they take you then?” Rowen asked, but not even the toymaker had an answer to this question.

 

They set off again, and walked through the afternoon and into the evening. The path began to descend into thicker, gloomier woods, where night seemed to rise up around them suddenly, and the air chilled. The moon rose, fuller now than it had been on Will’s first night in the Realm. Its pale silver light fell through gaps in the leaves and fitfully illuminated their way. Finally Finn led them off the path and in among the trees, where Pendrakelit his waylight, and soon brought them to a snug.

 

Will was surprised and relieved. He had thought that snugs were only found in the Wood. This one looked almost exactly like the snug he and Rowen had taken refuge in, right down to the pot bubbling on the hearth. After they had all eaten, Rowen gave a great yawn that brought tears to her eyes. She said goodnight and climbed up to one of the featherbeds in the loft. After a short time they heard her soft snoring, and smiled at one another. Shade curled up at Will’s feet and seemed to sleep, too, although as always Will wondered about that. He had the sense the wolf could and would rouse himself instantly at the slightest disturbance. Finn, however, did not even take off his boots. He sat down near the door, took a small book with a dark brown cover out of his coat pocket, read a few lines and put the book away again. Then he wrapped himself in his cloak and sat, slowly turning the green ring upon his finger.

 

Will was so relieved to be out of the cold and dark that his weariness vanished, and he sat for a long time by the fire and talked with Pendrake.The old man told him stories of the ancient wars of the Realm against the Power. As the old man spoke Will felt himself falling under a kind of enchantment, but not like that of the mirrors. Instead it seemed to him that everything in the snug was listening along with him: the crackling fire, the chairs, the bobbing shadows on the walls. Everything around them had become woven into the tale the old man told.

“Who was he?” Will asked when the Loremaster paused. “The Power.”

 

“Some loremasters say he was not a being of this world,” Pendrake said. “They speculate that he came from Elsewhere, the Untold. Moth’s people, who fought him longer and more bitterly than anyone, named him Malabron, which means The Darkness From Outside.”

 

“You talked about the Stewards like they aren’t here anymore,” Will said.  “What happened to them?”

 

“The sun shines,” Pendrake said with a shrug. “The rain falls.”

 

“What does that mean?”

 

“There is much magic in this world, Will. Many different kinds, in fact. Much of it works only in some parts of the Realm and not in others. There are quite a few out-of-work wizards wandering about, looking for somewhere to weave their spells. But the power of the Stewards runs deeper than any spellcraft. If it can be called magic, then everything around us is magic.”

 

Pendrake nodded toward Shade.

 

“If you need proof that the Stewards are still among us,” Pendrake said, “all you have to do is look around you.”

 

Will took a deep breath.

 

“What about Malabron? What happened to him?”

 

“He was said to have been slain in the last great battle, when the Stewards first appeared in the Realm and helped defeat him. But much knowledge from that time has been lost.”

 

“If he’s still here, like the Stewards, if he wasn’t killed and he’s come back, maybe he’s the one doing all those things you and the Marshal talked about. The one spreading darkness and fear in the Realm.”

 

“I have considered that,” Pendrake said with a nod. “The Hidden Folk as well have been seeking the answer to this very question. The truth is, no one knows for certain. If the story of the Stewards has never ended, then the same may be true of their great enemy.” He stretched and shook himself. “But one for certain has ended, and it is this day. Get some rest, Will. It’s likely we will have another long walk tomorrow.”

 

***

 

For the next three days they followed a path that wound and rose and fell through the still, green caverns of the wood, on and on, mile after long mile, until Will began to feel that he had never done anything in his life other than trudge through this endless forest. And every night was the same, too. They would find a snug, and when he went to sleep, Will would have the same disturbing dream he’d first had at the toymaker’s house. He would find himself in the clearing of the cloven tree, with snow falling, and then the man with the long white hair would appear and open his mouth to speak, but the dream would end before Will could hear what he was saying. Again he considered telling the toymaker about the dream, but once more he decided to keep it to himself. Although the concerned looks Rowen gave him every morning made him wonder just how well he was keeping this secret.

 

Each evening before going on watch, Finn would read briefly from the small leatherbound book he kept in his pocket. Finally Will’s curiosity got the better of him. He crossed the snug and asked Finn what he was reading. The young man quickly shut the book and looked at Will coldly. Then his face softened.

 

“You’ve heard that there’s a book for everyone in the Great Library,” Finn said.

 

“Yes, that’s what Rowen said. I didn’t find mine.”

 

 “Well, this book is like that for me. A copy of it is given to every rider-in-training in the Errantry, when they first accept you. It’s a kind of guidebook.”

 

“With maps and landmarks, you mean?”

 

“You could say that.”

 

“What does it say about where we are now?”

 

“Pretty much the same thing it says about everywhere else. Be on your toes.”       

         

***

 

On the morning of their fourth day in Oldark, they came to a less gloomy part of the forest. The trees were not so large or close-set here, and shafts of welcome sunlight beamed down through the branches. When they halted to rest, Finn shared out some of the bannog he had made that morning, and then began to pack up his gear. He had gone as far as the Marshal had given him leave, and now it was time for him to return to the Bourne.

 

“The forest only gets more dangerous from here on,” he said with a frown. “I should stay with you.”

 

“We’d all be happy if you did,” Pendrake said, clapping a hand on his shoulder. “But you’ve seen us safely out of the Bourne, and you have other duties to return to. I hope your journey home will be uneventful.”

 

“That’s the one thing a knight-in-training isn’t supposed to want. But I hope the same for your journey.”

 

Will thanked Finn. Although he still felt awkward around the serious young man, he had to admit he wasn’t entirely unhappy to see him go, not when he saw how warmly Rowen thanked him for coming with them.

 

Before Finn turned away, he wished Will good luck.

 

“If all goes as it should,” he said, “we won’t meet again, Will. I’m sorry for that. You could use more sword practice.”

 

For the first time Will saw a quick smile pass across Finn’s face. He felt a pang of shame at the unkind thoughts he’d been having toward someone who might have become a friend, if things had been different. Before he could think of a reply, Finn waved a farewell and slipped away into the shadows of the forest.

 

***

As dusk fell they left the path as before. Pendrake uncovered his waylight, but this time it stayed unlit and no answering glimmer appeared in the gloom. They walked on slowly, into deepening darkness, until they were only dim shadows to each other, barely illuminated by the faint moonlight that found its way through the treetops.

 

“Maybe there are no snugs in this part of the woods,” Rowen said.

 

“The waylight has found them here before,” Pendrake said. “Sometimes, the further from Fable one goes, the longer it for a snug to appear. But this is strange.”

 

They walked on, and Pendrake continued to hold out his waylight, until finally a tiny blue star appeared in the blackness before them. Will started forward eagerly, but the toymaker held him back.

 

“Don’t move,” he whispered, and then Will saw that Pendrake’s waylight was still dark.

 

“What does that mean?” Rowen whispered.

 

“I’m not sure, but I intend to find out,” Pendrake said. “Shade, guard Will and Rowen well. If I do not return by the time the moon touches the top of that dead tree, flee this place. Head for the Bourne. Find a patrol of the Errantry, if you can.”

 

The toymaker tucked the lantern away, took up his staff, and swiftly vanished. The others crouched down and waited. From time to time Will caught the faint gleam of Rowen’s drawn blade in the moonlight, but little else. He wanted to speak to her, to relieve the heavy silence, but he didn’t know what to say. The sound of her quickened breathing reached him and knew she was as frightened as he was. He felt Shade’s shoulder against his, and he was grateful for the wolf’s nearness. After a long time, when he was about to speak aloud just to break the tension, he felt Shade stiffen and rise from a crouch. 

 

The loremaster stepped in among them and crouched down. He was breathing heavily.

 

“We must get away from here,” he said. “Shade, we will need your eyes. Make sure no one strays. Follow me, and not another sound until I give the word.”

 

On they went, moving slowly and cautiously through the thick, clinging undergrowth. Will scarcely dared to breathe. He sensed rather than saw Shade at his side, and whenever the wolf moved further away he had to stop himself from reaching out. The wind grew stronger and whispered in the leaves. This helped to conceal the sounds they made as they crept along, but it also meant that every creak of a branch in the wind, every moving shadow, brought fear.

 

Pendrake halted suddenly and held up a hand to bar Will’s way.  A stray beam of moonlight revealed that they had nearly walked off the edge of a drop into what looked to be a deep, narrow gorge. Will leaned forward and saw the gleam of wet stone plunging down into blackness, heard the faint trickle of falling water somewhere far below.

 

“We will have to go around,” Pendrake said. 

 

Shade led the way to their right, along the brink of the chasm. On they went, steadily uphill and then down again, until they came to a place where the canopy of trees was not so thick. By the brighter moonlight Will could see that they had left the edge of the gorge behind. He could no longer hear the sound of trickling water. Nearby rose a huge spreading tree, and Pendrake led them in under the canopy made by the thick moss hanging from its branches. Wearily they sat down in a huddled group.

 

“We need to rest,” Pendrake said. “This is as good a place as any.”

 

“What happened back there, Grandfather?” Rowen asked.

 

“It was a true waylight that we saw,” Pendrake said. “But the snug had been broken open.”

 

“I thought they were hidden,” said Will.

 

“They have always been safe against most intruders, but as Moth suspected, another power came into the Bourne with the hollows. The secret of the snugs has been found out, and their light can now be used falsely to lure us into a trap.”

 

“Did you see anything?” Rowen said.

 

“No, but something warned me to keep my distance,” Pendrake said. “I felt a presence, like a strange thread in the weave of things. We are hunted, by someone or something I have never encountered before.”

 

Just then Shade raised his head and gave a low growl. Pendrake stood hastily and the others did the same.

 

“What is it?” Will whispered.

 

“A scent on the wind,” the wolf snarled, his voice cold and filled with warning “I caught it before, near the broken snug. The one that hunts us is not far away.”

 

 

 

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