The Perilous Realm Online Part 10

BOOK ONE: THE ENDLESS ROAD

CHAPTER TEN

“I wasn’t careful enough,” Pendrake said. “Whatever broke into the snug must have sensed my presence and followed me.” 

“This ghool will not harm Will Lightfoot,” Shade growled. “I will go meet it, while you seek safety.”

 “I don’t doubt your courage, Shade,” Pendrake said. “but we don’t know what kind of creature we’re faced with here. We must stay together, and perhaps I can contrive something to throw the hunter off the scent. Follow me.”

 “No,” Will said, the word out of his mouth before he knew why. They all stopped and stared at him. He stood, unable to explain himself yet. Moonlight on wet stone…

“No,” he said again, and now he understood. “We have to go back. Back to the gorge. There’s a knot-path there. We can use it to get away.”

“Are you sure?” Pendrake asked, studying Will carefully.

“It was like before, with the cave under the willows,” Will said, “but I was too scared to notice. Yes, I’m sure.”

“We can’t turn back now,” Rowen said. “We’ll be heading straight toward whatever’s coming after us.”

 

Pendrake took his waylight, swung open one of the diamond-shaped panes, and spoke a few words in a low voice. There was a tiny flash, and a bright blue wisp appeared, pulsing softly in the toymaker’s palm.

 

“We will have to risk a light, in order to move quickly,” he said, and then he turned to the wolf. “Shade, can you find the spot where we stopped at the edge of the cliff?”

 

The wolf merely grunted, as if amused by the challenge, then he bounded off the way they had come. As the others followed, the wisp stayed with Pendrake, hovering just over his head, but its light was strong enough for them to see each other clearly. In that way they were able to stay together as they raced through the forest after the wolf, and in a much shorter time than Will expected, Shade halted, panting.

 

“This is the place,” the wolf said, and he lowered his snout to the earth and turned in a circle, sniffing.

 

“There’s no gorge,” Rowen said. “Maybe you’re wrong, Shade.”

 

“No, he’s right,” Will insisted. “I’m sure of it.”

 

Shade stiffened and raised his head.

 

“Someone is here,” he growled.

 

A figure loomed out of the shadows. Rowen cried out and drew her knife. Will backed into Shade’s flank.

 

“It’s me,” said a familiar voice. The figure moved into the light and they saw that it was Finn Madoc.

 

“I’ve been searching for you,” he said. “After I left you I met another Fox Company scout. He reported they’d encountered something unknown prowling the forest, coming this way. Something that has been destroying the snugs. I had to return, to warn you. But I don’t know where we can go for shelter anymore if the snugs aren’t safe.”

 

“Will has found a knot-path,” Rowen said.

 

“Have I?” Will muttered, and turned away.

 

He pushed his way through a tangle of branches and met only more branches that snagged his cloak and scratched his face. Turning, he tried another direction, and met with disappointment there. A sick dread began to well up in him and he struggled against it. Tears stung his eyes.

 

“It’s no use,” he said, his voice shaking. “It was an accident before. I can’t make it happen again.”

 

“Stay calm, Will,” Pendrake said. “It’s here. Just look, and listen.”

 

Will took a deep breath and closed his eyes. His senses brought him a jumble of messages that seemed to grow stronger and more distracting as he struggled to ignore them: the thrash of leafy branches in the wind, the humid scent of moss and earth, the laboured breathing of his companions and his own thudding heartbeat. Then he remembered Finn by the stream, just sitting. What had he said? The riders of the Errantry learned to be still and calm inside, no matter what was happening.

 

Will opened his eyes. He took a deep breath and slowly let it out. His senses were still full of the world, but instead of trying to shut everything out, he stood in the midst of it without moving. He was here, now. There was nowhere else he could be. As he felt his fear drop away, he knew without any doubt that the path he needed was …

 

Will took three steps forward, and the ground dropped away underneath him.

 

Strong hands clutched and held him. He turned and saw Pendrake shaking his head.

 

“I don’t think your powers include flight,” the old man said with a wink.

 

Will’s boots found a firm footing on rock, and he leaned forward. There was the gorge, a slender throat of mossy stone plunging into a deeper night than the one over their heads. He knew for certain now that he had been right. If they took this path they would vanish as if they had been swallowed up by the earth. And he knew something else too.

 

He disengaged himself from Pendrake’s grip and stepped forward over the edge.

 

“Will!” Rowen cried.

 

He landed in a springy bed of moss, not much more than his own height below where the others stood. He took a deep breath and felt his legs shaking.

 

“I’m fine,” he called up to the others. “It’s an illusion. The gorge isn’t deep.”

 

“Are you sure?” Rowen said doubtfully. “We can barely see you.”

 

“It’s only a short drop,” Will said. “Trust me.”

 

“I’ll stay behind,” Finn said. “If this hunter finds the knot-path, at least I can try to bar its way.”

 

“And if it can’t find the path, you’ll be telling it exactly where to look,” Pendrake said.

 

After some hesitation the others jumped down, first Shade, and then Finn and Rowen. Pendrake still stood at the lip of the gorge, the wisp cupped in his hands, illuminating his face eerily with its dim pulsing light.

 

“Go, Sputter,” Pendrake said softly, and the tiny creature sped off with a swiftly-diminishing hum.

 

Soon they were all standing together between high rock walls that almost met overhead.

 

“Are we safe now?” Rowen whispered.

 

“We don’t know what our pursuer is capable of,” Pendrake said. “We must keep moving.”

 

Without a word they set off together with Will leading them. After a few steps the gorge narrowed even further and then began to turn in a slow curve. To Will’s surprise, it kept on curving until he was sure they had come full circle and were about to return to where they had started. But that did not happen. They continued in a curving path, and Will’s sense of time grew hazy. One moment he felt that they had only just set out, and the next he was sure they had been walking through the gorge for hours. No one spoke, and Will began to wonder if somehow he had fallen asleep and was walking in a dream.

 

Then he felt a change in the air. It was moving again, the slightest of breezes, but it was enough to jolt him awake. Although the bottom of the gorge was still in deep shadow, Will knew that dawn was approaching in the world outside. They were coming to the end of the knot-path. He was sure of it.

 

As they walked, the walls on either side dropped in height and grew mossier, like crumbling garden walls, until they were swallowed up altogether in thick, tangled undergrowth. Now it was as if they were passing through a tunnel of green, much like the one Will had discovered between the willows.

 

And there before them was the way out, a narrow space bright with morning light. At the same time, the twittering and chirping of birds reached their ears.

 

As he emerged from the knot-path, Will felt certain that they had come a great distance, but he wasn’t sure how he knew. Then he realized that the trees were smaller, more stunted and sickly-looking. The smell of the forest was different, too, carrying a faint reek of something unpleasant. He wasn’t sure what it was, but the smell brought him a memory, sudden and sharp, that stopped him in his tracks.

 

One summer, a few years ago, his father had taken him on a duck-hunting trip up north. They had travelled a long way to a marsh in the middle of nowhere. In the morning they were up before dawn, and spent the day crouched in the tall grass or slogging through the marsh. Will had been eager for a chance to shoot his father’s gun, but when the duck he finally hit was hanging limp in his hand, he felt the cold and damp of the marsh seep into him. They walked on, but Will’s heart wasn’t in it any more. He lagged behind, until suddenly he realized he was alone. Dad had taught him to stay in one place if he got lost, but he panicked and began to run. He fell into the water several times and lost the ducks he had been carrying. Dad finally found him, soaked and nearly frozen, and was angry that he hadn’t done as he was told. The next time Dad invited him on a hunting trip he came up with an excuse not to go.

 

Will looked at Pendrake now, who was intently scanning the horizon. The old man seemed lost, and baffled. Will was suddenly very tired, as if they had been walking in the knot-path for hours. Everything they had done so far had only made things worse.

 

“Any idea where we are?” Finn asked the toymaker, who slowly shook his head.

 

“I’m afraid you’re much further than seven days’ travel from Appleyard,” he said at last. “How much further I can’t say. But you won’t be returning on time.”

 

Finn nodded, and straightened the knapsack on his shoulders.

 

“If I’ve already disobeyed my orders,” he said, “I might as well keep going.”

 

He glanced at Will, who was teetering from weariness where he stood, and added, “but first we should find somewhere safe to rest.”

 

Before they set off again, Pendrake dug into his bag and took out a small silver box with a crank handle sticking out of one side. He turned the crank and the top of the box sprang open. A whirling cloud of grey dust rose from the box and swiftly flew apart on the breeze.

 

“The dust of many roads, gathered on many journeys,” Pendrake said as he shut the box. “With luck it will hide the thread of ours.”

 

Led by Shade, they walked a short distance through the woods and then found some concealment in a stand of squat, crooked pine trees. They shared Finn’s bannog and drank from their flasks, and then Will lay down on a bed of fir needles and was soon dropping off to sleep. When Pendrake woke him, after what seemed only moments, the sun was high in the sky. It was time to move on.

 

 

***

 

After a short march through steadily falling country, they came to a steep bank that looked out over a vast, flat plain of mossy ground, dotted with pools of dark water. Here and there stood a few gaunt, stunted black pines, like ragged spears jabbed into the wet earth. There was a pungent stench in the air of stagnant water and decay. Will realized that this was what he had smelled when they came out of the knot-path.

 

It was like the marsh he had slogged through with his father, but far more bleak and uninviting. Only this marsh looked as if it stretched on forever in all directions.

 

“This is a strange place,” Shade said. “I don’t like the smell.”

 

“This is the Bog of Mool,” Pendrake said. “I travelled along its margins once before, years ago. There were more birds and trees then. Things have changed since then, and not for the better. But at least it gives me some idea of how far we’ve come. I’d guess the knot-path has brought us a four-day march further west, and a little north.”

 

“Four days,” Rowen said, wide-eyed. “Then if whatever’s hunting us can’t find the knot-path, we’re safe.”

 

“A very large if,” Pendrake said. “We shouldn’t let down our guard. And walk carefully. The bog is land floating on water. One wrong step and you go straight down.”

 

They started forward without any eagerness, compelled only by the need to keep moving. The sun, setting ahead of them as they trudged along, burned sullenly through shifting veils of mist. The damp spongy earth squelched under their feet. They heard bubbling and hissing, and at times saw clouds of vapour steaming up out of the earth. Shade took the lead, keeping his nose low to the ground. No one spoke. The gloom of their surroundings kept them moving only in the hope of finding somewhere to rest from the cold and damp. They had eaten nothing for hours but a bit of bannog.

 

As night fell they found meagre shelter beneath the tangled branches of a low clump of thorn trees and debated what to do next. Pendrake suggested they make for Skald, on the far side of the bog.

 

“That’s the city of the Northmen,” Finn said with a frown. “The Errantry is not welcome there.”

 

“Theirs was a great story once, but it was swallowed up in the wars long ago,” Pendrake said. “Those who survived fled south in search of refuge. It’s true they’re wary of strangers, but they live in a wild land surrounded by enemies. I’ve spent some time in Skald. They seldom turn away travellers seeking shelter.”

 

The next day was spent toiling slowly through the seemingly endless bog. Led by Shade they moved from one patch of more or less solid ground to another, but often Will would take a step that plunged his foot or entire leg deep into the wet, clinging mire and then he would pitch forward and fall. The same happened to the others, with the exception of Shade, who seemed to have an uncanny sense for finding the most solid ground.

 

The sun remained hidden behind the pale shroud of mist. There was nothing to relieve the eyes from the monotonous landscape of mossy hummocks, pools of brown water and withered trees. To make matters worse they were accompanied every step of the way by swarms of mosquitoes. Finn brought out a sharp-smelling ointment and they all rubbed it on their faces and arms. All except for Shade, who refused to have the stuff on his fur. The ointment kept away most but not all of the whining, relentless insects, and before long, Will was itching from numerous bites. Every now and then he would stop, ready to topple from weariness and annoyance, and have to summon every ounce of effort and willpower to keep going. It seemed even his very thoughts had become sodden and heavy, so that he was having difficulty thinking of anything other than his next step. There seemed to be nothing in his mind but this unending trudge, as if he had never done anything else. He looked at Rowen toiling near him, and for a frightening moment he couldn’t even remember her name.

 

Finally, when he was ready to give up and sink down in defeat, Shade called out.

 

In the distance stood an unusual shape. It seemed to be a large upright stone, but when they drew closer they saw that it was the remains of a tower. They all stared at it as if this forlorn ruin was a beacon of hope, after hours of flat grey nothingness. There was no roof, and on one side the wall had fallen in completely, so that the stones that remained standing formed a jagged half-circle. Shade ran ahead, nosed around the base of the tower and came trotting back.

 

“No scent,” he said in a disappointed tone. “No life. No one has been here for a long time.”

 

“Who would build a tower out here?” Will said. “There’s nothing to see.”

 

“Something’s wrong,” Rowen said. Her face was pale, and her brow had broken out in beads of sweat.

 

“Are you all right?” Will asked.

 

Rowen shook her head.

 

“I don’t know. Can’t you feel it? This place is strange. Wrong somehow. It’s as if everything is closing in on us.”

 

“I don’t understand.”

 

“Neither do I. But we shouldn’t be here.”

 

A brief inspection of the tower revealed nothing but chunks and fragments of stone that were half-buried in thick mud. The tower remained a silent mystery.

 

The travellers kept on, and Will began to lose his sense that any time was passing at all. The sun still could not be seen through the  mist, so there was no telling the time of day from its place in the sky. They had to trust solely in Shade’s sense of direction.

 

A tall shape appeared in the murk, and when they got closer they saw that it was the remains of a tower. They all stared at it as if this forlorn ruin was a beacon of hope after hours of flat grey nothingness. There was no roof, and on one side the wall had fallen in completely, so that the stones that remained standing formed a jagged half-circle. Shade ran ahead, nosed around the base of the tower and came trotting back.

 

“Still no scent,” he said in a disappointed tone. “No life. No one has been here for a long time.”

 

“Who would build a tower out here?” Will said, and his own voice sounded thick and sleepy to him. “There’s nothing to see.”

 

“Something’s … wrong, ” Rowen said haltingly, as if she was struggling to speak.

 

She looked at Will. Her face was pale, and her brow had broken out in beads of sweat.

 

“Are you all right?” Will asked.

 

Rowen shook her head.

 

“We saw this already,” she said. “And we said the same things the last time…”

 

“Did we? I don’t think so …”

 

 

“Rowen is right,” Pendrake said slowly, his brows knitting. “And it may be worse than that.”

 

“What’s happening to us?” Finn asked. He too spoke as if he was half-asleep and having trouble forming the words.

 

The toymaker didn’t answer. Instead he started off again, and after exchanging puzzled looks, the others shook off their weariness and followed.

 

After some time a tall shape appeared in the murk, and when they got closer they saw that it was the remains of a tower. They all stared at it as if this forlorn ruin was a beacon of hope, after hours of flat grey nothingness. There was no roof, and on one side the wall had fallen in completely, so that the stones that remained standing formed a jagged half-circle. Shade ran ahead, nosed around the base of the tower and came trotting back.

 

“Not again,” he grumbled.

 

“Who would build a tower out here?” Will said drowsily. “There’s nothing to see.”

 

“Something’s wrong — ” Rowen began, and then she broke off and looked at Will.

 

“I’m about to tell you that we saw this already,” she said. “And then you’ll ask me if I’m all right …”

 

“What? What do you …”

 

The toymaker took a few slow steps away from the group, gazed around for a long moment and then came back, stroking his beard. He looked grim, and Will’s heart sank.

 

“What’s happening to us?” Finn asked.

 

“We’ve stumbled into a shard,” Pendrake said wearily. “A fragment of an old story that keeps repeating itself, over and over. I can’t even say how many times we’ve gone through it already. But I know that if we walk away from the tower we’ll return to it again and do everything we did before.”

 

They were all silent.

 

“We should walk away in another direction,” Finn said at last. “Try something different.”

 

“But how will we be sure it’s different?” Will asked.

 

“I will find the way out,” Shade growled, tense and ready to run. He seemed to be the least affected by the lethargy and slowness of speech that had fallen over everyone else.

 

“You can’t, Shade,” Pendrake said to him. “Nor will walking a different way make any difference. The shard is sealed off from the world surrounding it, like a bubble. When you reach the edge of the bubble you don’t pass through it. You find yourself back where you started, doing what you did all over again.”

 

“For how long?” Will asked.

 

Pendrake did not answer. He closed his eyes and appeared to be deep in thought.

 

“But now we know what’s happened,” Rowen said with a new trace of life in her voice. “The first time we came here we didn’t know. At least I don’t think we did. But that means we’ve changed things, doesn’t it? The shard isn’t the same anymore. So maybe we can get out.”

 

Pendrake shook his head.

 

“If only it was that easy. We’ve changed the story, yes. But it is changing us. Haven’t you noticed? It’s getting harder to remember things.”

 

Rowen nodded.

 

“I forgot just now why we came here, to the bog,” she said. “And where we were before this. It’s all getting hazy.”

 

“The longer we stay here the more woven into the shard we will be. We’ll forget we ever did anything else. Or knew of any place other than this. It’s already happening. If we stay here too long we’ll forget our past, the world outside the shard, the purpose of our journey. We won’t even know or care about escaping.”

 

“There’s nothing we can do?” Finn asked.

 

 “There must be some way out,” Rowen said.

 

“We still have a chance, perhaps,” Pendrake said, turning in a slow circle, his eyes searching the distance. “There may be others trapped here with us. Sometimes a broken bit of old story repeats because those in it are unable or unwilling to move on. It’s their own will, grown hardened and powerful over the years, that has made the shard a trap and a prison.”

 

“If we can find someone like that,” Rowen said, “we can tell them what’s happened…”

 

“And set them free,” Will finished.

 

“It may be our only hope,” Pendrake nodded.

 

“How do we find them, if they’re here?” Finn said. “If we set off from the tower again, won’t we just come back to it?”

 

Pendrake turned to the wolf.

 

“Shade, you were the only one who said something different each time we found the tower. And you’re not as tired as the rest of us. That tells me you’ve been least affected by the shard as yet. Perhaps because you’re the oldest of us, by far. Your memories are stronger.”

 

“Thank you,” Shade said. “But how can that help?”

 

“The rest of us must stay here, while you go off to search. That may be enough of a change in what we’ve done before to gain us a little more time.”

 

“I’ll do it,” Shade said eagerly. “But what am I looking for?”

 

“Anyone,” the toymaker said. “Man, woman, or child. Bird or beast. Anything different from what we’ve seen before. And hurry.”

 

The wolf bounded off without another word. They watched him until he was lost in the mist. For a long time no one spoke. Will was afraid he would say something that he had said before, and he guessed that the others were thinking the same thing.

 

Then Pendrake spoke, and he seemed to be struggling to form the words.

 

 

“Tell us … Will … about your life before you came to the Realm. Tell us about that. If we tell our own stories, we may be able to … slow down the forgetting.”

 

“What story should I tell?” Will said.

 

“Whatever comes to mind,” Pendrake said. “Tell us the happiest thing you can remember.”

 

At that Will’s thoughts fled to that summer holiday at the lake. The last one before he found out his mother was sick. His memories came in bits and pieces that he had to clutch at before they faded away. The log cabin they had stayed in. With a loft and a real fireplace. Toasting marshmallows and playing board games. Rain drumming on the roof.

 

On the last night of their stay he hadn’t been able to sleep. He got up, found his mother sitting on the front porch swing. She said she hadn’t been able to sleep either. What did they do then? They looked at the stars together. Then she told him something. It was so hard to remember…. Something from her childhood. Her family went to a cabin like this when she was a girl. She had wondered what life would be like when she grew up, whether she would have any children of her own. She used to imagine what they would be like, the children she didn’t have yet.

 

What had he asked her then… He had asked her what they were like. Her imaginary children.

 

They were perfect, she’d answered.Always happy, never fighting, always listening to their parents. The best kids in the whole world.

 

You must be disappointed, he’d said.

 

She smiled and held him close. Then she said… She said …

 

 

I couldn’t be happier, she said. Because I didn’t get those imaginary kids. I really did get the best kid in the whole world.

 

As Will began the story he felt the bleakness of the bog sink into him. In this lifeless landscape, what he had lost was that much clearer and more painful. He groped for the words, and found it hard to keep the memories clear in the fog that clouded his mind. When he came to that last night in the cabin, his voice trailed off.

 

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I can’t … I don’t …”

 

He saw that Rowen had moved away from the others and was gazing up at the tower.

 

“Who would build a tower out here,” he said, and it was no longer even a question moved by the slightest curiosity. “There’s nothing to see.”

 

“Something’s — ” Rowen began, but Pendrake interrupted her with a raised hand.

 

“We’re starting it all over again,” he said. “We need … another story. I’ll tell one this time.”

 

He had begun the first slow, hesitant words of a tale when Shade came loping back.

 

“I found someone, I think,” he said doubtfully. “Follow me.”

 

Will and the others needed no further encouragement. They set off doggedly after Shade, who ran slower than before, to allow them to keep up. After some time they saw the same looming shape before them once more, and Will’s renewed hope began to fade, but before the tower was close enough to solidify out of the murk, Shade halted.

 

At first Will saw nothing, and then he realized that someone was crouched in front of them. Someone the same grey lifeless colour as the bog.

 

It appeared to be a large, bald, muscular man covered completely in wet clay. His thick arms were plunged into the bog and he seemed to be straining to pull something out of the muck. He made no sound as he laboured, and seemed oblivious to the approach of Will and the others. His face was grey and expressionless.

 

“Who is he?” Rowen whispered.

 

“He does not speak,” Shade said. “He must be deaf. Or very unfriendly.”

 

“It’s a golem,” Pendrake said. “A man-shape made of clay and brought to life with sorcery.”

 

The creature gave a soundless heave. Its arms came up out of the earth with a wet, squelching sound. Between his hands was a huge, dark brown stone. Slowly the golem straightened up and then, even more slowly, as if he too was made of stone, he began to turn in the direction of the tower. 

 

“What’s he doing with that?” Rowen said.

 

“The tower isn’t a ruin,” Will said, as the truth struck him. “The golem is building it.”

 

“I believe you’re right, Will,” Pendrake said. “But he can’t finish. He moves so slowly that the tower sinks into the bog faster than he can build it up. It’s a hopeless, endless task. That’s why he’s trapped here, and us with him.”

 

The golem began walking now, toward the tower. If his sluggish plod, slower than a snail’s creep, could be called walking. It was like watching a mountain come to life and taking its first ponderous steps. As the creature moved there was a sound like gravel grinding between wet stones.

 

“Can we stop him from doing this?” Finn asked. “He doesn’t seem to know we’re here.”

 

“Or we simply don’t matter to him,” Pendrake said. “He was made for one purpose only.  To build this tower. If he could finish it, this part of his story might stop repeating. But we can’t wait for that to happen. Let me think. There must be some way…”

 

He went close to the golem, who towered over him by at least a head, and peered up at his grey, impassive face.

 

“Just as I thought,” he said. “That’s it. Someone lend me a knife.”

 

Quickly Rowen handed hers over. The toymaker dug the blade’s tip into the golem’s forehead as if he was trying to pry something loose. The creature kept on without paying this intrusion the slightest notice. Suddenly something popped from the golem’s forehead and Pendrake caught it in his other hand.

 

The golem came to a stop and stood frozen, with the stone in its hands.

 

Pendrake opened his palm to show the others what he had found. It was a small, thick yellow disc, like a piece of wax about the size of a shirt button. There was a letter or figure carved into its surface that vaguely resembled a bird with a long tail. They all turned to the motionless golem and saw the shallow hole in his forehead where the disc had been.

 

“Ord,” Pendrake said, his eyebrows furrowing. “The letter is Ord.”

 

“Is that his name?” Will asked.

 

“You could say that. The disc is the seal that gave him life, and his purpose. Without it he does nothing. He is nothing.”

 

“Then his story’s over now,” Finn said. “So we can leave the shard, right?”

 

Pendrake looked past Finn and pointed. Everyone turned. The tower was still there.

 

“No, no, I was wrong,” Pendrake growled, shaking his head. “Old fool. Shard dulled my wits. His story isn’t over, just stopped. We’ll stop too, probably in a few moments.”

 

He raised the disc to the golem’s forehead but his motions were slow and clumsy and the disc slipped from his fingers and fell to the ground.

 

“Where is it?” Rowen cried.

 

“I can’t see it,” Will said.

 

With weary urgency they searched the mud at their feet.

 

“Never mind,” Pendrake said. He fished in one of his many pockets and brought out a handful of small objects: beads, buttons, marbles and other tiny trinkets.

 

“There must be something …” the toymaker muttered to himself as he sifted through the items in his hand. “Yes. This might do it.”

 

He held up an object that looked to Will like a small checker piece made of pale wood, and pressed it into the hole in the golem’s forehead. Everyone else stepped back.

 

Nothing happened.

 

 

Pendrake tried another object, a blue-green marble. Again nothing happened to the golem. Then he popped one of the buttons off his coat and raised it to the golem’s forehead. By now his movements had become so agonizingly slow that Will had to suppress an angry shout. The button, like the checker piece and the marble, had no apparent effect on the golem. And as the toymaker took the button away, his arm slowed until it stopped moving and stayed held out.

 

“Grandfather?” Rowen said.

 

“It’s already happening… ” the toymaker said in a faltering voice, and to his horror Will could feel it in himself, too. As in those bad dreams he sometimes had where he could not move, his limbs were stiffening, refusing to obey his will. It was like being plunged into swiftly-hardening concrete.

 

“Hurry …” Pendrake gasped. “Try another …”

 

Rowen plucked urgently at the objects in Pendrake’s palm, but her sluggish, clumsy attempt sent most of them falling to the ground. They seemed to take a long time getting there.

 

Rowen gave a choked cry.

 

“I can’t move my legs,” she gasped.

 

Now it was Finn’s turn to struggle forward, holding out the green ring he wore on his right hand. He reached up and pressed it to the hole in the golem’s forehead. An instant later came a flash of emerald light from the ring, and the clay giant shuddered from head to foot. There was a cracking sound and Finn stumbled away from the golem. The ring’s band was still around his finger, but the stone was lodged in the golem’s forehead and glowing with a dull green fire.

 

In the next moment everything seemed to speed up. The toymaker suddenly lurched forward. Finn caught him before he fell.

 

“What did you… ” he said to Finn, who was watching the golem with wide eyes.

 

“My brother’s ring. Corr gave it to me, before he left home. All I had left in my thoughts just now was a memory of him. I was trying to hold on to it, and then I thought of the ring.”

 

The huge lump of stone fell from the golem’s hands and hit the ground with a wet thud. The clay giant began walking again, but this time much faster than before.

 

Will and the others watched him, stunned, and then began to follow. Will breathed deeply, aware that the weariness in his body and fog in his mind were already beginning to vanish. He felt as though he had just woken up from a deep, dreamless slumber that had gone on for years. And even the bog itself seemed to come to a kind of life. The mist thinned, swept by a warmer breeze, and patches of blue appeared in the sky.

 

“Where’s he going?” Rowen asked, watching the golem trudge on.

 

“Ord seems to know, which will have to be enough for us,” Pendrake said.

 

As they drew closer to the tower they wondered if the golem would stop, but he passed by the lonely pile of stones without so much as a glance. And as Will and the others followed, they saw to their relief that the tower was sinking visibly. They heard the creaking and groaning of the stones as they shifted and slid.

 

“There must have been a kingdom here long ago,” Pendrake said, “before this land became a bog. For all we know the tower is only the tallest turret of an entire castle sunk in the earth for hundreds of years.”

 

The golem’s pace began to quicken, and although Shade seemed able to keep pace with him, the others were still weary from their time in the storyshard and lagged behind. Finally Pendrake called a halt. They gathered together and watched as the golem trudged on without them. Only Finn kept on after the creature, until he sank to his knees in the mire and came plodding slowly back.

 

“I don’t think you will get your green stone back,” Shade said to him. Finn shook his head wearily, but there was a light in his eyes Will had not seen before.

 

“It wasn’t mine,” he said. “The golem seemed to know where it was going. I thought maybe it was going to find the one the ring belonged to.”

 

Already the golem had dwindled to a grey blur. Pendrake put a hand on Finn’s shoulder.

 

“You may meet Ord again some day.”

 

When they looked again the golem had vanished in the gloom.

 

 

 

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