Cavern of secrets, p.1
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       Cavern of Secrets, p.1

           Linda Sue Park
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Cavern of Secrets


  DEDICATION

  To Callan

  MAP

  CONTENTS

  Dedication

  Map

  Part I Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Part II Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Part III Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-One

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  Chapter Twenty-Four

  Acknowledgments

  Back Ad

  About the Author

  Books by Linda Sue Park

  Credits

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  CHAPTER ONE

  THE wind stirred the green needles of the neverbare trees. They swayed and leaned toward each other, murmuring of the coming spring.

  The trees surrounded the entrance to a cave, which was partially blocked by a huge lichen-covered boulder. Or perhaps it was a pile of dried bracken, for it, too, trembled in the wind.

  Then the pile began to stretch and shift, taking on a more distinct shape. A shaggy head . . . an enormous torso . . .

  The gigantic golden bear seemed to be emerging from the mountain itself. Rising to her full height, she opened her mouth and growled, a low rumble that grew into a throaty roar.

  Raffa was woken by thunder.

  Odd upon strange, he thought. A thunderstorm at this time of year? He rubbed his eyes and saw Kuma sitting up on her pallet.

  “That’s her—she’s awake!” Kuma exclaimed in delight, and jumped to her feet.

  As Raffa followed her out of the shelter, he marveled at the thought of a bear so big that he’d mistaken her growl for thunder.

  They stopped just short of the mouth of the cave. The bear stood on her hind legs, half again as tall as a man, and sniffed the air for several seconds. Back down on all fours, she shook herself so hard that fur flew like snow, then retreated a few steps deeper into the cave.

  Raffa could see joy and relief on Kuma’s face. It was one thing to know that bears hibernate. It was quite another for Kuma to have seen her beloved Roo breathing so infrequently for these many weeks that it almost seemed as if she had forgotten how.

  Moments of joy had been all but absent for Raffa’s little group that winter. Months earlier, they had fled Gilden and escaped to the desolate wilderness of the Sudden Mountains. There, they had spent the daylight hours focused entirely on two activities: keeping warm and finding food. The work was too hard, the wind too cold, the snow too deep. There was never enough to eat.

  Two days ago, the wind had changed. Its knife-edged sharpness had dulled, then softened. Raffa had almost cried with relief over the shift in the weather. Since then, Kuma had been checking the cave obsessively to see if Roo was awake.

  Now Raffa hung back while Kuma entered the cave. She moved slowly and spoke in a soothing tone as she approached the bear. Squatting down in front of Roo, she made herself small and unthreatening, and let Roo sniff at her.

  Roo whined and swatted Kuma’s shoulder affectionately with an enormous paw. Kuma was ready for this and had braced herself; otherwise, Roo’s exuberant greeting might have knocked her over. Then the bear turned away and began nosing at something on the ground.

  Something gray and furry, with a striped tail.

  The mound of fur did not respond at first, but Roo let out a plaintive growl and persisted, continuing to nudge with her nose.

  Finally, there was a mewl of protest, and the masked face of a young raccoon appeared. Twig unfurled herself, sat up, and blinked a few times, her eyes glowing purple.

  “Ter-tee wah,” she squeaked. “Tertee, grrrr-rum, tertee.”

  “She’s thirsty—she wants water,” said Kuma, who almost always understood Twig immediately.

  Twig had gained the ability to speak after being treated with an infusion that contained a mysterious scarlet vine from the Forest of Wonders. But she could not speak nearly as well as Echo the bat, who had received the same treatment. Twig’s speech was limited to a word or two at a time, interspersed with an assortment of growls, chuffs, and snorts. Raffa thought this was because she was almost always with Roo, whereas Echo spent most of his time with humans.

  Raffa smiled at the little raccoon and went to fetch a strawful of melted snow for her. Following Kuma’s example, he squatted down and moved slowly, while Roo kept her eye on him.

  During the escape from Gilden, Twig had become separated from Bando, her twin brother, and their mother. Fortunately, Roo had taken to the little raccoon at once, and they had bonded like mother and cub. The bear tolerated Raffa and his cousin, Garith—the third human in their party—because she knew that Kuma was fond of them. Still, she never let anyone except Kuma touch her, which was fine with Raffa, who much preferred to stay a safe distance away.

  Raffa gave Twig a drink. When she was finished, she pawed at the bear, who seemed fully awake and reoriented now. Roo relaxed, sat down, and allowed Kuma to scratch her with a stick. At the same time, she began giving Twig a tongue-bath.

  The girl scratching the bear grooming the raccoon . . . Seeing the three of them together, Raffa felt a sharp pang of longing for his own special companion.

  He made his way to the back corner of the cave. A tiny bat hung there, on a perch made out of a twig tied to a leather cord. Raffa blew on the bat’s whiskers. Echo stirred, then produced an annoyed click.

  Raffa tried again, blowing a little harder.

  Another click, this one weaker than the first.

  Raffa frowned. Neither Twig nor Echo were true hibernators like Roo, but both had slept for days at a time throughout the winter. Raffa didn’t know if it was normal for bats to emerge from torpor later than raccoons. Carefully he donned the perch necklace; perhaps the warmth of his body would help Echo waken.

  Echo hadn’t spoken for weeks. How Raffa missed their conversations! The bat never failed to make him laugh. He could hardly wait for Echo to talk again, for then it would truly be spring, a farewell forever to this harsh winter of too little laughter.

  Garith was sitting partway up inside the shelter. He had been woken not by the bear’s growls but by a shaft of sunlight piercing the screen of branches.

  “Garith.” Raffa waved his hand to get his cousin’s attention. “Roo—and—Twig—are a-wake. Want—to—go—see—them?” He spoke slowly, enunciating each syllable as clearly as he could, and making exaggerated gestures.

  “I’ve told you before, that doesn’t help!” Garith said. “Stop talking to me like I’m some kind of idiot. I lost my hearing, not my brain.”

  His voice was often a little too loud since he had become deaf. Raffa should have been used to it by now, but every reminder of Garith’s deafness twisted his insides—because it was his fault. Maybe not directly, but the fact remained that Garith wouldn’t be deaf if it hadn’t been for Raffa’s decision to flee Gilden.

  Raffa had spent the winter months trying to make it up to Garith, by helping with his share of the work. But Garith resented that, too, and Raffa felt as if he were always tiptoeing around his cousin’s bad moods.

  Garith yanked his hood up over his head and lay down again. “Go away,” he said.

  His anger was more than worrisome, and for the hundredth time Raffa wished he could talk to his parents ab
out it. But he couldn’t risk going home, for none of them had any idea what awaited them there. Were their families being watched? Would neighbors turn them in? Would guards seize them the instant they were sighted?

  Raffa, Kuma, and Garith could hardly be considered enemies of Obsidia. But Chancellor Leeds viewed them as a threat, for she knew that they possessed something more important than strength or power.

  Knowledge.

  The trio had discovered hundreds of animals trapped in a compound, where they were being dosed and trained against their natures. The Chancellor was keeping the project a secret from all but a favored few; Raffa had been one of them, for a short time. Now he was sure that she was seeking a way to silence him. He had nightmare visions of being thrown into the underground cells of the Garrison, left to a life not worth living among the rats and the filth and the loneliness.

  And the Chancellor wanted one thing even more than his silence: Roo. Raffa would never forget the shrill fervor in her voice during their escape, when she had screamed for the guards to recapture the bear. He had heard only dark and murky whispers of her plans, but he did know that she wanted to use the great bear as a weapon. Bears were rare in Obsidia, and bears the size of Roo rarer still: Keeping Roo out of the Chancellor’s reach was the main reason Raffa and his friends had chosen to hide in the Suddens.

  With spring finally banishing the ice and snow, Raffa found himself in an agony of indecision.

  They couldn’t stay here forever, but they couldn’t go home, either.

  Raffa slept poorly that night, waking several times to check on Echo. The next morning, the bat seemed even more inert. Raffa could see that Echo was still breathing, but his tiny body was barely warm to the touch.

  He showed the bat to Kuma. “I don’t know what’s wrong,” he said. “He should at least be starting to wake by now.”

  Kuma examined Echo. “Yes, I think so, too,” she said slowly. “I’m sure that I’ve seen bats flying around in early spring.”

  Raffa’s alarm was growing by the moment. He scolded himself silently: Panicking would do Echo no good. He thought of his parents, Mohan and Salima. When they were treating patients, they were almost always calm and deliberate. Sometimes decisions had to be made quickly. Sometimes their actions were urgent. But they were never panicky.

  Think the way they would. Like an apothecary.

  Pulse slow and weak . . . unresponsive to stimulus . . . torpor that no longer seemed natural. Because Raffa did not know exactly what was wrong with Echo, any treatment he used would have to be mild—one sure to do no harm.

  A restorative tonic, then. He had only a few botanical supplies with him, and no equipment other than his trusty mortar and pestle. He set about grinding some anjella root, then combined it with dried mellia and wortjon.

  Three times a day over the course of the next two days, Raffa dosed the bat with the combination. He checked on him constantly, even massaging Echo’s tiny back in an attempt to improve his circulation.

  All to no avail. If anything, the bat was worse off, for no matter how many times Raffa blew on his whiskers, Echo did not respond.

  Raffa made the same infusion again, but this time he added a powder made of the stems and leaves of the scarlet vine. He had taken the entire stock of the vine from Uncle Ansel’s glasshouse in Gilden, and had dried the plants to store them.

  Unlike the fresh vine, the dry powder emitted not a single spark or gleam when combined with other ingredients. Raffa concentrated hard while making the infusion, but nothing came to him—no moment of color or music, no prick of discomfort. No sign at all from his intuition.

  As he held the reed that contained a dose of the infusion, he hesitated. What was he to think of this blankness? Was it possible that he was losing his gift? It made him feel frightened and uncertain to have to rely solely on his training and experience. Did other apothecaries have to do that all the time?

  He took a deep breath, gritted his teeth, and dosed Echo with the infusion.

  The next few hours dragged by so slowly that it felt to Raffa as if the sun had come to a standstill. He looked down the neck of his tunic every few moments, hoping to detect even the smallest change in Echo’s condition.

  Nothing.

  The bat remained as he was, limp except for the tiny claws closed tightly around the twig.

  Raffa’s relief that the infusion seemed to have done no harm was overwhelmed by the harsh disappointment that it had done no good, either. He went to Kuma and Garith, fighting back tears.

  “I don’t know what else to do,” he said, the little bat cradled in his hands. “He should be awake by now, but nothing’s working.”

  “What?” Garith said. “What’s working?” He was staring hard at Raffa’s face, and Raffa realized that his cousin was trying to read his lips.

  Raffa shook his head. “Not working,” he repeated.

  Garith glanced down at Echo. “You need more botanicals,” he said. “It’s still too cold up here—nothing’s growing.”

  “And maybe . . .” Kuma’s voice was soft with sympathy. “Maybe you could use some help—somebody to talk to about what else you could try.”

  Raffa swallowed past the lump in his throat and put his hand protectively over the wee bat. Months earlier, he had saved Echo’s life. Somehow that gave him a solemn responsibility for the bat. He hadn’t failed Echo the first time. He couldn’t fail him now.

  He clenched and unclenched his jaw. Garith and Kuma were both right, and he was sure upon certain about what he had to do. When he spoke, the words came out fiercely.

  “We’re going home,” he said.

  Neither Garith nor Kuma uttered a single protest. They were well aware of the risks; at the same time, Raffa knew that each had reasons for wanting to leave the Suddens. Kuma needed to find a safe place for Roo, somewhere close enough to visit occasionally. And Garith had to go back to face his father, a meeting that Raffa suspected was both yearned for and dreaded.

  “All right, then,” Raffa said. “We’ll leave tomorrow at daybirth.”

  He glanced down at Echo on the perch around his neck. “I’ll get there as fast as I can, I promise,” he murmured.

  Ford the Everwide . . . find a hideout for Roo . . . and then go home, where—as long as no guards awaited him—there would be plenty of botanicals to work with.

  Even more important, his parents would be there. Mohan, with his profound knowledge of garden botanicals, and Salima, so familiar with wild plants; both of them having years of experience treating illness and injury. Surely, with their help, he could cure the little bat.

  Then Raffa’s stomach lurched at his next thought.

  If only Echo lives long enough to get there.

  CHAPTER TWO

  AS they broke camp, the threesome discussed the route. They had felt safe in the Suddens, believing the terrain to be too remote and too vast for the Chancellor’s guards to search, and indeed, there had been no sign of pursuit that winter.

  But heading for home would bring them closer to Gilden—and to the risk of being recaptured.

  “We need to ford the river here in the mountains,” Raffa said. He made snaking motions with his hands toward Garith. “Near its source.” Only there would the Everwide River be narrow enough to cross without a boat or a raft.

  “But how will we find it?” Kuma asked.

  Garith was glancing from his face to Kuma’s, his eyes narrowed in concentration. With a pang, Raffa realized how hard it must be to follow a conversation by reading lips.

  “The source?” Garith said, looking at their faces for confirmation. “Da was there once. He told me about it. It starts near the peak closest to the Southern Woodlands.”

  There was a brief, uncomfortable silence, as there always was when Garith’s father, Ansel, was mentioned. None of them could ever forget Ansel’s decision to send the screaming owl to stop Raffa and Kuma from escaping with Roo. It was an act of betrayal so agonizing that Raffa tried to keep it shut away in a
far dark corner of his mind.

  And it had to be even worse for Garith. By helping Raffa escape, Garith had in a single act estranged himself from his father.

  Raffa avoided eye contact with his cousin as he shouldered his rucksack, regretting its near-emptiness. He had escaped from Gilden with a decent store of botanicals, but nearly all of them had been used up over the winter to treat coughs and colds, cuts and chilblains. The rucksack now held only a few powders, his waterskin, some rags, and a lightstick.

  Over one shoulder, he wore his leather rope in a loose coil. He had made the rope himself by cutting up the fine tunic sewn for him by his mother. Salima had been more disappointed than angry, which he regretted, for he hated displeasing her. But the rope had proved its usefulness, and he was never without it.

  He took one last look around at the site that had been home for the last few months.

  No, he thought, that wasn’t quite right.

  It had been a shelter, not a home.

  An unusual procession struck out down the mountainside. Kuma took the lead, walking stick in hand. She was followed by Roo. The bear was on all fours and wore a most decorative headpiece: Twig, clinging to Roo’s ears, her striped tail curled neatly around the bear’s forehead.

  “Up snuffle snuffle,” Twig chirruped happily. “Up snuffle snork!”

  Garith was next, and Raffa was last in line, with Echo on the perch necklace.

  Raffa hadn’t realized before how dependent he had become on Echo’s scouting. Months earlier, when the group left Gilden and made their way into the Suddens, Echo had constantly made forays into the air and reported back to Raffa. More than once, his squeaks and clicks of alarm had directed the group away from dangerous crevasses. Without the bat’s guidance, Raffa felt as if they were walking blind.

  He checked on Echo constantly. It seemed that with every step he took, his worry for the little bat grew. He struggled to smother his darkest thoughts. What if . . . what if we don’t make it home in time?

  Over six grueling days, they hiked down one mountain and up and over the next. The going was slower than slow; they moved a step at a time, fearful of the treacherous terrain. They had to stop each day well before sunfall to find shelter and gather firewood. In their makeshift camps, the nights were cold and miserable; the lack of sleep exhausted them, delaying their progress still further.

 
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