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The house of power, p.10
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       The House of Power, p.10

           Patrick Carman
 
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  Edgar heard the big key turn and watched the latch flip over, wondering just how horrible it would be to find himself locked in a small room with Mr. Ratikan and a swinging walking stick.

  Just as the door was swinging open, Edgar realized the shaft of light was still shooting through the hole Isabel had made in the shutter, and he reached out a hand to cover the opening.

  Mr. Ratikan left the door open, and light streamed into the room. He walked purposefully to the basket in the corner of the room and opened it up, peering inside and touching something with his hand that Edgar could not see. He shut the basket once more.

  As he made his way back to the door, Mr. Ratikan’s foot slipped out from underneath him and he nearly fell before regaining his balance on the walking stick. With a frown he picked something up off the floor. It was the black fig that had put the hole in the shutter.

  “Someone’s been in here,” he said under his breath. “Isabel.”

  He bolted for the door with the black fig in hand and slammed it shut, locking it tight before racing down the steps, yelling Isabel’s name through the grove.

  Edgar instantly descended to the floor and made haste for the door, but stopped short just as he was about to leave. He looked back at the basket in the corner of the room. What is Mr. Ratikan hiding in there?

  Inside the basket Edgar found a sack made of sheepskin with a drawn string at the top. It felt like a heavy bag of dirt, but why would Mr. Ratikan hide such a thing? Maybe there were figs hidden inside, a secret stash he ate when no one was around.

  Untying the top, Edgar discovered that it was filled with dirt, just as he’d imagined it would be. He put his hand inside, rubbing some of it between his fingers. There had to be something special about it—or something hidden in the middle of it—that Edgar couldn’t see.

  The sheepskin bag was a common item used all over the grove to carry figs during harvest. Edgar scanned the room for an empty bag. He was in the house of the man who ran the grove, and as such there ought to have been any number of fig bags stored somewhere. He was about to give up when he looked under a table and found a box with a dozen or more fig bags stuffed inside. He took one of the bags, unlocked the door, and ran outside—keenly aware that Mr. Ratikan could return at any moment.

  Edgar filled the bag with dirt from the grove as fast as he could and returned it to the basket in Mr. Ratikan’s house. When he had set the original bag he’d found on the front porch and locked the door from the inside, Edgar climbed back up to the shutters and let himself out, locking the shutters behind him.

  As he climbed down the outside of the house, he began to feel an itching on the fingers of one hand, and he rubbed the feeling away on his pant leg. But it returned with a vengeance as he ran to the front of the house, picked up the heavy bag, and headed into the grove.

  By the time he’d made it back to the tree where he’d hidden earlier in the morning, his hand was burning and covered with blisters. It was the hand he had put into the bag.

  Isabel wasn’t sure how to react when she heard Mr. Ratikan yelling her name as he approached the third-year line of trees where she stood. She tried to look busy near her mother and father, who were spending as much time looking nervously over their shoulders at the Highlands as they were tying figs in clusters.

  When Mr. Ratikan saw Isabel, he marched directly to her mother and thrust the black fig toward her with an accusing gleam in his eye.

  “Your daughter broke into my house!”

  Isabel’s father, Charles, came over, along with some of the other workers from the grove. A crowd was gathering.

  “Get back to work—this doesn’t concern the whole lot of you!” screamed Mr. Ratikan, but nobody moved. Isabel took the sling out of her pocket and held it out.

  “I was just playing with my toy when I shot that fig through one of your shutters. I didn’t mean to do it.”

  “Give me that ridiculous thing,” snapped Mr. Ratikan, reaching out his hand and snatching the sling away from Isabel.

  “Leave the girl alone,” said Isabel’s father. “She was only playing.”

  Mr. Ratikan raised his walking stick threateningly toward Isabel’s father, and the crowd lurched forward. He stepped back, for a fleeting moment unsure of his authority in the grove. But the feeling quickly passed, and he set his scowl on the group before him.

  “Are you set to rise up against me, is that it?” said Mr. Ratikan. “We have been lucky to have the Highlands so far off, but now they come near. If they find you’ve fallen behind in the grove, their punishments will be swifter and harsher than you’ve ever experienced before.”

  “What will keep us from walking right in if it comes all the way down?” asked Charles, emboldened by the men at his side. “Are you going to stop us?”

  Mr. Ratikan looked hard at Isabel’s father and answered without the slightest fear in his voice.

  “They have many ways of keeping you out, ways of violence that you should not test.”

  This seemed to weaken the group’s hostile stance, and they mumbled amongst one another.

  “Get back to work!”

  Mr. Ratikan turned his gaze down at Isabel.

  “And you!” He waved the sling in the air before her. “Don’t ever make another of these if you care to eat at my house again.”

  The crowd dispersed. When Mr. Ratikan had moved far enough off into the grove, Isabel’s father knelt down beside her, whispering softly.

  “Can you show me how to make one of those slings?”

  Isabel couldn’t believe her ears.

  “I can.”

  “And does it throw a black fig very far and very fast?”

  “It does.”

  Isabel’s father stood up again and stared at the towering cliffs.

  “Then you’ll have to show me how to use it, won’t you?”

  She looked up at her father with apprehension. They were a gentle people, and Isabel had her doubts about this sudden turn to violent thoughts. She wasn’t sure she understood her father’s intentions.

  “What will happen if the Highlands fall all the way down?”

  Isabel’s father hesitated. He was a hardworking man unaccustomed to such intimate conversations.

  “If they come with cruelty, I must help protect the families. I must protect you, Isabel.”

  He looked at her with strength and determination, as though he were a shield that would protect her.

  “I’ll show you how to use a sling if you think it will help,” she said.

  Her father nodded, and they both went back to work, each of them imagining what was to come.

  CHAPTER

  14

  DRIED LEAVES AND ORANGE DUST

  For all his ranting, Mr. Ratikan knew that most of the children in the grove were of little use with the third-year trees. They were too short to tie the figs and too weak to carry off the trees that had been pulled down. He had no patience for babysitting, and soon Isabel was sneaking away once more to find Edgar.

  When she arrived at the tree where she’d found him earlier in the morning, it was not the same Edgar whom she had left. He flopped down out of the limbs and sat at the base of the trunk, holding the bag he had taken from Mr. Ratikan’s house. One of his eyes was swollen shut and his hand was teeming with blisters.

  “I found what Mr. Ratikan was hiding,” said Edgar, trying with all his might to put on a good face.

  Isabel had seen sores like the ones on Edgar’s hand before. “It can’t be!” she cried in disbelief. These were the symptoms experienced when one made contact with the leaves of a tree that had been left too long in the grove.

  “I figured out that this bag is filled with dried, crumbled leaves, but it’s mixed in with a lot of orange dust—”

  Isabel broke in, “The dust that catches in the air off the old trees.”

  “Exactly,” Edgar agreed. “And I made the mistake of rubbing my eye.” He was sure that if he put his head in the bag, his lungs would tighten and
he would cough violently for days and days.

  “Now I think I know what Mr. Ratikan was experimenting with,” he continued. “I wonder what would happen if I put some of what’s in this bag into a cup of water and drank it? Do you think my insides would look like my hand and my eye? I imagine I’d throw up a lot—or worse.”

  “The two sick people in the grove!”

  Edgar nodded. Isabel slumped under the tree with Edgar and they both stared at the bag. The idea of such an inhuman act was hard for both Edgar and Isabel to grasp, and yet it was equally difficult to turn away from the facts.

  “That’s a lot of poison. What do you think they were going to do with it?” asked Isabel.

  Edgar faltered, unsure if he should say what he thought, for fear of scaring Isabel.

  “I don’t know, but I think we have information that needs to be shared. People need to know this bag of dust and leaves exists—and who made it.”

  Edgar scratched at his hand and it burned. He had only touched a tiny bit of the dust from the bag, and he hoped it wouldn’t get any worse.

  “You look like I hit you in the face with a black fig,” said Isabel. Edgar pulled his shirt down over his shoulder and revealed a swollen, black-and-blue shoulder that was almost as dreadful-looking as his face. Isabel gasped.

  “The pain in my shoulder helps me forget the burning in my hand. You did me a favor.”

  The two of them laughed under the tree, but Isabel still felt terrible.

  “It all looks a lot worse than it feels,” he offered. “Just a little itching and soreness, nothing I can’t handle.”

  Isabel explained what had happened in the grove. They agreed that Edgar would take the bag to the inn at the Village of Rabbits. He had friends there who needed to know the truth. Maybe they would even help him find someone who could read the page in his pocket. Isabel would stay in the grove, helping the villagers make slings and teaching them how to use them. She would also tell them what Edgar had found.

  The grinding sound of the Highlands descending toward their homeland swept over Isabel and Edgar as they started off in different directions, wondering if they would ever see one another again.

  A few hours before Edgar made his escape from the grove, a group of men stood in the Highlands before a large basket that hung from the cliffs. The basket was extended out over the edge on a wide, fallen tree trunk and lowered with thick and leathery braided ropes. It was large enough to hold a great many bags of figs or mutton or rabbit on the way up to the Highlands. The basket was broad and curved with a V-shaped bottom, which made it challenging to stand in it. It was particularly difficult for Sir Emerik, who hadn’t been inside one very often. He was seated in the basket where he couldn’t see over the edge.

  “Get up, you fool!” Lord Phineus couldn’t stand the sight of cowardice—especially in someone so near his gaze. Sir Emerik struggled to his feet. The basket was lifted off the ground by a rope and pulley, whereupon it swung like a pendulum and settled over the open air. The two men who maneuvered the basket were amused when Sir Emerik’s face turned bone white as he looked out over the edge.

  “When you get to the town with all the rabbits, I want you to investigate how people are reacting,” Lord Phineus said. “Find out if they are frightened, confused, and most important, organized. And ask about the boy. When you’ve finished with this task, come and find me in the grove at Mr. Ratikan’s house. I’ll be there just before nightfall on an errand of my own.”

  Lord Phineus stood perilously close to the edge and looked down once more. He was alarmed at just how far the Highlands had fallen without his knowledge. It had been two days since any of the baskets had been used, a common lapse in transferring goods given the time of year. There being nothing to move, not even the men who lowered the baskets had been near the edge. It was a dangerous place, avoided by everyone, and no one went there unless they had to.

  Lord Phineus turned his gaze on Sir Emerik and found that he had sat down in the basket again.

  “Lower him double time!” he yelled to the two men holding the wheel. They started letting out rope, and the basket began its quick descent to the bottom.

  Sir Emerik enjoyed a smooth ride until the basket met with Tabletop, where it tipped on its side and he tumbled onto the ground like a sack full of rabbits. Brushing himself off, he looked toward the empty grove. Where is everyone? That Mr. Ratikan must have them leashed to the trees.

  Hours later, Sir Emerik approached the Village of Rabbits in a bad temper. He wished he had been in charge of the horses and the trained men, as Sir Philip was. Sir Emerik felt as though he were on a fool’s errand, wasting his time while Sir Philip taunted him with glorious pursuits of horses and weapons. Tired and hungry, he could hardly believe he was expected to return to the grove later that same day. It was outrageous, and he planned to tell Lord Phineus as much when they met once more.

  With a sleepless night and a morning of wretched walking behind him, Sir Emerik’s thoughts were on the food and rest he might find in the village. He had been to the inn once before and eaten the cooked rabbits, and he was overtaken by a desire to fill his stomach. There can’t be much expected of me without at least something to eat. And besides, the inn will be a good place to start digging for information about this boy Edgar. How could such an important book, holding the secrets of Atherton, be written for a mere child in Tabletop?

  It was with these thoughts that Sir Emerik arrived at the inn in the Village of Rabbits with a large appetite and droopy eyes in search of food, rest, and—if it happened his way—some useful information.

  CHAPTER

  15

  SIR EMERIK’S INTERROGATION

  Edgar’s mouth began to water when he opened the door to the inn and smelled the familiar aroma of rabbits cooking. Outside the world was changing, but in the warmth of the inn, everything had remained the same. Maude was cleaning a table and Briney was tending the fire and roasting a sizzling rabbit on a stick. The rabbit crackled as Briney looked up to see who’d come in.

  “What’s happened to you?” he asked with some concern, setting his work aside and waving Maude to join him. They were unusually quiet as they approached Edgar, and Maude pointed toward the back wall of the inn. There was another man—quiet and alone—sitting in the dark corner of the room. His hood was pulled up and his head was on the table.

  Maude took Edgar by the arm, looked him in the eye the way a doctor might, and hauled him into the back room. It was darker than the main room of the inn, where an orange glow came from flames in bowls of fatty fuel sitting on every table. Maude knelt before Edgar, and then Briney arrived with a leg torn from the rabbit he’d been cooking.

  “Here, eat this,” said Briney, staring at Edgar’s swollen eye. “You look terrible.”

  Edgar’s eye was swollen almost shut, and he was having some trouble seeing in the darkened room. Maude offered a tiny bit of water, and Edgar thanked them as he devoured the small meal.

  “Did Mr. Ratikan hit you?” asked Maude, her voice rising in anger. “I’ll bring my broom to the grove and have his head off with it!”

  “It’s not what you think,” answered Edgar. He nodded his head toward the door to the front room. “Who is that man in there?”

  Maude sighed and whispered back, “It’s the strangest thing. He came in looking exhausted and starving, dropped one of the biggest figs I’ve ever seen on the table, and asked for a cup of water and two full rabbits.”

  “He’s from the Highlands, you know,” she continued. “I hear that’s the way the important ones dress up there, with those cloaks and hoods.”

  “What do you suppose he’s doing here?” asked Edgar, trying not to betray his fear. He’d suspected they would look for him, but hadn’t imagined they could find him so quickly.

  “Well, I don’t exactly know. He devoured the rabbits and fell right to sleep. He must have been awfully tired, that one. He hasn’t stirred.”

  Edgar ate the last of the rabbit leg
and set the bone on the table.

  “What’s that you have there?” asked Briney, pointing to the bag Edgar had carried from the grove. The two adults then noticed the swollen sores on Edgar’s hand.

  “What have you gotten yourself into, Edgar?” asked Maude, concern rising in her voice.

  Edgar wasn’t sure how to begin. There was so much to say, but he hadn’t anticipated a sleeping man from the Highlands sitting in the inn who might wake at any moment.

  “The Highlands are sinking,” said Edgar. “You do know that, don’t you?”

  The tone in the little room changed all at once. Briney peered around the corner into the front room and saw that the man was still asleep.

  “We know, Edgar. Everyone in the village knows. There’s been a lot of talk about what will happen if it reaches the bottom. People are talking about going in. About forcing their way in. They talk about the water mostly, about how the Highlands won’t be able to keep it from us any longer.”

  Edgar rubbed his inflamed hand against his pant leg, then he quickly told them what was in the bag, where it had come from, and what he thought the Highlands had planned to do with it.

  “I wish you’d left that outside,” said Maude when he’d finished, leaning away from the bag and eyeing Edgar’s infected hand. “They intend to do us harm, that much we can say for sure.”

  “What shall we do with it?” asked Edgar.

  “Leave it with me,” said Briney. “With the Highlands falling, we’ve got people traveling between the grove, the Village of Sheep, and us. Everyone is trying to decide what to do and when. We’ll figure out what should be done with it.”

  Edgar was surprised to hear that the different villages in Tabletop were in communication. Were they organizing, preparing for—what did the book of secret things say? A war?

 
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