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The house of power, p.18
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       The House of Power, p.18

           Patrick Carman
 
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  A maddening silence fell over the room in which only breathing was heard.

  “Dr. Kincaid is a good man,” came a new voice. “But he’s not a magician. He can’t wave his wand and make it come back.”

  “And what of Dr. Harding?”

  There was a sterile clang of a glass being set on a metal table.

  “He’s gone, and with him all our hopes of a new world.”

  The sound of a man coughing filled the room, followed by a pause in which the two men looked at one another for long moment. It was the older of the two who broke the silence between them.

  “Do you think God has forgotten us?”

  It was a dreadful thought filled with hopelessness.

  “Is there nothing else we could try? The fate of the Dark Planet hangs in the balance. One would think we could do better.”

  The two men were startled by the distant sound of breaking bones. They turned to a wall of thick glass facing the bleakness of their home on the Dark Planet. On the other side of the glass were a dozen Cleaners, trying with all their might to break into the room.

  CHAPTER

  26

  A STRANGER IN THE GROVE

  While Isabel watched Lord Phineus and his men race back into the Highlands, her eye caught a tiny movement away from the village. Someone was heading for the grove, fast and low to the ground. Isabel stayed along the line of trees and made her way toward the moving person until he was within striking distance. She loaded her sling and waited, wondering if it were a spy or the beginning of a second assault.

  And then she realized it wasn’t a man but a boy, dashing through the open space, trying to reach the grove without anyone seeing him. When he came near enough, Isabel called out a warning.

  “Go back where you came from! We don’t want you here!”

  It was Samuel she had spotted. Startled by the voice, he tripped and fell forward in the dirt, a plume of dust rising around him. He struggled up onto his elbows and peered into the grove but saw no one. Whoever it was who’d detected him, he knew from the voice that it was not an adult—and it was a girl.

  “I’m not going to hurt you!” yelled Samuel, assuming his appearance might have scared a small child younger than he. “Just let me into the grove, please!”

  Isabel didn’t know what to make of this boy trying to escape the Highlands. He could be an intruder sent to let loose more poison that she and Edgar may not have found. Maybe adults in the Highlands had sent this boy on a wicked errand. Isabel’s own people had been willing to use her in their efforts to thwart an oncoming enemy. Why wouldn’t grown-ups from the Highlands do the same?

  “Don’t come any closer or I’ll have your head!” said Isabel, coming into the open area and swinging the sling over her head. Samuel saw that it was indeed a small child with dark black brows set coldly against him as he slowly rose to his feet. The moment he did, Isabel released a flying black fig, and it struck Samuel in the shin. A stabbing pain shot all the way down to his foot, and Samuel collapsed to the ground again. When he looked up, Isabel had reloaded her sling and was swinging it above her once more.

  “That was a warning,” she said. “Get up again and I’ll aim a poisoned one for your head.”

  This was not the timid little girl he’d expected, but Samuel felt he’d be more likely get help from her than any adult he might encounter. He began pleading with her to help him.

  “Do you know a boy named Edgar?” yelled Samuel. He saw a glimmer of acknowledgment on Isabel’s face. “I know him! He came to see me in the Highlands. I’m only trying to find him!”

  “What do you mean you know him? How could you possibly know Edgar?”

  “I tell you, he came to see me—twice, actually—and I only want to talk to him.”

  Isabel slowed the sling and let it come to a stop at her side. Could this be the boy Edgar had told her about, the one who read the book to him? She couldn’t believe he would make the dangerous journey to the grove in search of Edgar, and she still felt unsure about Samuel as she stared him down.

  “Tell me what he looks like,” demanded Isabel. “If you get it wrong I’ll put this black fig through your eye.”

  Samuel stammered a moment, trying to collect his thoughts.

  “Quickly!” yelled Isabel. In the distance she had seen people coming toward her.

  “He’s got black hair, like yours. Small nose, big hazel-colored eyes. He had on a shirt with a big pocket on the front and old pants. He was sort of dirty, sort of like you, like he hadn’t been cleaned up in a while. And—”

  “All right, all right,” said Isabel. “That’s enough.” She was insulted by the boy’s calling her dirty, but she had to concede that he did know what Edgar looked like and must be the one he had chosen to trust. She motioned for Samuel to come into the grove.

  The adults approaching her hadn’t come close enough yet to see Samuel’s belt, white shirt, and grey pants, which labeled him as a child of the Highlands. Isabel managed to help him climb up a tree for hiding as quickly as she could.

  “You must be very quiet,” she said. “Don’t move until I tell you to, understand?” Samuel’s nod was barely visible through the thick screen of green leaves. Isabel darted down the row of trees and then into the open, where her parents and some others from the village greeted her.

  “Isabel! We’ve done it!” her father said. “We’ve pushed them back!”

  There was a quick reunion and some celebrating, though brief, before Charles asked her to whom she had been speaking.

  “It was no one—just a boy from the grove. He’s gone to find his parents.”

  This seemed to satisfy her father’s curiosity, and the group of them moved toward the village.

  “I must go to the other villages and see how they fared,” said her father. He gazed into the center of Atherton, fascinated by the first quiet glimpse of its otherworldly beauty. “Though it is very tempting to venture into the Highlands.”

  “That can wait,” said Isabel’s mother. She was a practical woman and didn’t see any reason to get closer to the enemy just yet. As far as she was concerned, they needed to prepare for the evening. It was possible that Lord Phineus would make a night ambush with his men, his horses, and his swords.

  “You should send some men into the grove,” said Isabel. “Mr. Ratikan is still tied to the tree, but I’m afraid Lord Phineus was not pleased with him.”

  “Do you mean—” started her mother, but she didn’t need to finish. Isabel nodded with an expression that told her Mr. Ratikan would not be alive when they found him.

  “We best get things taken care of before more of the children see,” said her father. “I’ll get some men to handle it. Then I’m heading off to the Village of Rabbits to meet with Briney and Maude.”

  Isabel had never seen her father so animated. He had come alive in a way she’d never known before. It sounded to her as though he were leaving on a grand adventure.

  When her father had gone, Isabel’s mother draped her arm around Isabel as they walked, not wanting her to wander even a few steps away. When they arrived in the village, Isabel was surprised to find that there were people from the grove who had paid with their lives in the fight. She hadn’t gotten that impression from her father. By the time she got back to her broken-down house, she was shocked to see many Highlanders and people of the grove who had been lost in the day’s fighting.

  “Where will they go?” asked Isabel. The question came from an empty space somewhere deep inside.

  “What do you mean?” asked her mother.

  “I mean, now that there’s no life in them. Where will they go?”

  Her mother thought she had an answer and started to say something, but it was like a faded whisper in her memory, and she had no reply. She shrugged as if to say she didn’t know, and the two sat on a wooden bench made of limbs in front of their little house with their arms around one another.

  While they were seated on the bench, they began to feel a trembli
ng that quickly turned to something more. The feeling took their breath away, as if the ground were being pulled out from under them. A bottomless yawning noise came from somewhere far, far away, and they clung to each other even tighter.

  Now that the Highlands had fallen, Isabel had thought the quakes would have come to an end. She looked at her mother inquisitively for an explanation, but again, her mother had none. The two tried to put the feeling out of their minds and focus on the work at hand.

  “Mother,” said Isabel. “I want to be of some use. Let me go and help with the children and collect more black figs. We might need them come night.”

  Her mother looked toward the Highlands and saw the tall trees and the golden grass. She was reflective as she held her daughter.

  “It would be nice to go inside there, don’t you think?” she asked.

  “I don’t know,” answered Isabel. “Maybe. But I would never want to leave the grove. This is our home.”

  Isabel’s mother looked at her and knew her daughter had grown older than her years in the past few days. She would have to let her go, her little queen of the grove.

  “It’s a shame things had to go this way,” said Isabel’s mother. “We say we want only to be treated with fairness, but to look at the Highlands brings some new feelings, don’t you think?”

  Isabel thought she knew what her mother meant, but she wasn’t sure.

  “We want it for ourselves. Before it came so near we never thought of such things. But now we must have it. I can see it in your father’s eyes,” said Isabel’s mother.

  Isabel was confused and didn’t know how to respond. She knew that beyond the trees and the golden grass there were awful men with horses and swords. But there must also be plentiful water, shelter, and comforts she’d never dreamed of—and who knew what kinds of adventures.

  Isabel’s mother let go of her daughter’s arm and put her hands in her lap, looking pensively out at the trees.

  “Be careful, Isabel. Stay near the village and the grove. And come see me in an hour so I know you’re safe.”

  Isabel didn’t want her mother to change her mind and she was up in a flash, sneaking back to where she had left Samuel in the tree.

  A distant sound had echoed through the grove, and Samuel became aware that the tree in which he was hidden had begun to feel as though it were sinking into the ground. When it stopped, he wished that the girl would return quickly to keep him company, but after a time he couldn’t stand it any longer. He made up his mind to leave the safety of his perch and go in search of Edgar. When Samuel dropped down out of the tree, he found that Isabel was standing right in front of him.

  “I told you to stay in the tree until I returned,” she said. Isabel felt sure that if she called them, the children of the grove would stream out of the trees like little fairies and do her bidding.

  “You were gone a long time,” said Samuel defensively, but Isabel had a disabling effect on Samuel. His mouth became dry, and when he tried to continue, his voice was shaky. “I was only going to look around and then come right back.”

  Isabel was beginning to warm up to Samuel, and she didn’t see the point in scolding him further. Samuel cleared his throat, thinking of how he might change the subject.

  “Did you feel that—when the ground went out from underneath us—did you feel it?” he asked.

  Isabel nodded, and Samuel could see that she was beginning to trust him, if only a little.

  “What do you think it was?” he asked, wondering if she knew as much as he did.

  “I don’t know.”

  Samuel realized the two of them didn’t even know each other’s names. “Do you have a name? Mine is Samuel.”

  “Isabel,” answered Isabel.

  “Do you know where I can find Edgar? It’s important that I see him.”

  “He left the grove and hasn’t returned.” Isabel wasn’t ready to tell Samuel what she’d overheard Briney say.

  “Where has he gone to?” said Samuel, concern rising in his voice.

  “I don’t know for sure,” said Isabel, still uncertain about Samuel’s intent.

  “Are you sure you don’t know where he went? I really must find him.”

  Isabel couldn’t hold Samuel’s gaze, and he could tell that she was hiding something.

  “He could be in real danger,” said Samuel. “It would be best if I could speak to him.”

  “I don’t think you’ll find him in Tabletop.” Isabel’s resolve was beginning to crumble.

  “What do you mean? He hasn’t gone back into the Highlands looking for me, has he? That would be terrible news.”

  Isabel shook her head, which further confused Samuel.

  “Where, then? Where did Edgar go?”

  Isabel pointed to the ground. “Down there.”

  Samuel was mystified by her answer at first, looking at the ground and scratching his head. Then he caught on.

  “You can’t mean…”

  “He’s climbed down to the Flatlands,” said Isabel. “Or at least he’s tried to.”

  “It’s unbelievable! Why would he do such a thing?”

  The two of them thought about it, and both smiled hesitantly at the grandeur of what their friend Edgar had attempted to do.

  “I wish I could have gone with him,” said Samuel.

  “Only Edgar could have climbed down there. How did you suppose you would go with him? Did you think he might carry you down?” said Isabel, unexpectedly feeling some competition for Edgar’s affections. Samuel only smiled.

  “I don’t know why he did it, but I’d give anything to have found him before he left. I wonder if he knows what the last page of the book of secret things said.”

  Now Samuel had let slip his own secret, and Isabel was quick to demand an explanation. “What last page are you talking about?”

  He looked at Isabel and thought he’d better tell her what he knew. The information was too important to keep to himself any longer.

  “The page had some information that I think only very few people are aware of,” said Samuel. “Maybe Edgar went below searching for someone who could read it to him. I hope not.”

  “What did the page you gave to Edgar say?”

  The time had come for Samuel to share what he’d read. He had a hard time getting started. All along he’d imagined this would be a conversation he would have with Edgar, not a girl from the grove he hardly knew.

  “Tabletop is sinking into the Flatlands,” said Samuel. “That feeling of falling, that must have been the beginning. The page revealed that the descent of Atherton would continue even after the Highlands and Tabletop came even.”

  Isabel was dumbstruck, and for a long moment she could not respond. She reflected on the moment she’d sat with her mother and felt suddenly light as a feather. Then she thought of something else that scared her.

  “What—what’s down there? I mean, besides Edgar.”

  Samuel had come to something he had to share but didn’t want to.

  “I don’t know for sure,” he said. “But even if Edgar made it all the way down, he’s still in a lot of danger.”

  Isabel asked the question again, with more force this time.

  “What’s down there?”

  Samuel knew they had to let the others in Tabletop know what was to come.

  “Some sort of… animals,” said Samuel. “… Or beasts. They will want to do us harm.”

  Isabel took choppy breaths and imagined Edgar all alone in such a dangerous place. On the very heels of that thought was the realization that Tabletop would likely one day fall even with the Flatlands. Would the creatures find their way into the grove?

  “I wish he hadn’t gone down by himself,” said Isabel.

  Isabel and Samuel looked at one another as though they’d both lost their best friend.

  “I must tell the others what you’ve told me,” said Isabel. No sooner had she said the words then she was off to find her father in the village, leaving Samuel alone to con
template the peril into which Edgar had descended.

  CHAPTER

  27

  THE HOUSE OF POWER

  When Sir Emerik returned to the House of Power, he was feeling some concern that he would be seen as a coward. Lord Phineus was nowhere to be found, and the gate was guarded by just two men. Sir Emerik awkwardly dismounted from his horse as he watched the rest of the men in his party ride their own horses past the House of Power to a stable. There was no one to take the reins from him, and he wasn’t sure what to do with the beast, so he let it go and watched as it trotted away toward the other horses.

  “Sir Emerik!” came a shout from behind him as he walked through the gate and into the House of Power. “Lord Phineus approaches!”

  It was the guardsman, and he was pointing past the main entry to the green fields in the distance. A rider clothed in black raced toward them, and Sir Emerik felt the cold stare bearing down on him from far away. He had a fleeting thought of closing the gate and leaving his master outside.

  Instead, Sir Emerik took no action. He waited, standing at the gate, and in due time Lord Phineus arrived.

  “Have you any word from Sir Philip?” asked Lord Phineus. He wasn’t as sick as he had been. Riding through the fresh air had begun to clear his lungs.

  “There is no word, Lord,” answered Sir Emerik. “We are the first to arrive.”

  Lord Phineus dismounted his steed and towered over the shorter man before him. His gaze grew cold as he examined the scabbed head of Sir Emerik.

  “And did you succeed in your efforts at the village?”

  Sir Emerik chose his words carefully, for he knew the look on the face before him was that of a man about to turn violent.

  “We did not, I’m sorry to say. They were armed with a method of defense we knew nothing of. It would seem they are not only willing but also able to rise up with force against us. We fought hard, but were turned back—although not before I discovered the thing we’ve been looking for.”

 
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