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The house of power, p.22
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       The House of Power, p.22

           Patrick Carman
 
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“Take your men to the Highlands by a new way,” said Wallace. “Follow the rim where the two lands had been separated. There is a man and a horse in that direction, if you keep walking, and I wonder if he might be someone you know.”

  Before long Horace would find Sir Philip where he’d fallen, away from all the villages in the middle of nowhere, and wonder how he had come to an end in such a desolate place.

  It was one of those times when Isabel wished with all her heart that she could write and her parents could read. She wanted more than anything to leave a note for her mother and father telling them not to worry, for she would return soon. And yet she also knew that if she told them, they would surely come looking for her and meet with violence in the Highlands. No, she could not risk losing the chance of helping Samuel on this important mission.

  She decided to tell her most devoted follower from the grove, a very affectionate, loyal girl of seven.

  “Tell my mother something for me, will you?”

  “I will,” the little girl said.

  “Wait an hour, then go to her and say that I’ve gone to do something that could not wait, but that I’ll return tomorrow.”

  “Where are you going? She’ll want to know.” It was really the little girl who wanted to know.

  “I can’t tell you, and she can’t know.”

  “Will you come back?” The little girl’s voice trembled, and Isabel got down on one knee before her.

  “I promise to come back. There’s something I can do to help save the grove, but she cannot come after me. You just have to tell her that I will return.”

  “I can do it,” said the girl. “I’ll wait until an hour after dark and then I’ll tell her.”

  The little girl ran off and Samuel jumped down out of a nearby tree. Early evening had come; and as the sky was turning grey, Isabel tore a leaf from one of the trees. There was a subtle change, something only someone who’d lived in the grove all her life would be aware of. The leaf was just a little dry, starting to turn a slightly different color. Isabel thought of the saplings across the grove and wondered how long the fragile young trees would last. They were delicate, requiring great care and lots of water. If they failed, the future of the grove was in question. The grove might be lost.

  “We must go quickly,” she said. “There’s no time to lose.”

  And so Isabel and Samuel began a journey that would take them through lands dangerous and beautiful, on a quest to bring water to a barren land and a thirsty people. It would be more perilous than either of them suspected.

  Isabel and Samuel crept across the hardening mud where the bottom of the waterfall used to be, and they both thought of the boy who had brought them together.

  “What do you think Edgar is doing right now?” asked Samuel as they passed into the Highlands unseen.

  “I wish I knew,” answered Isabel.

  “There’s still a chance the three of us will return to the grove.”

  The two looked back at the trees as they slipped into the tall green grass. Even in the grey light Isabel had seen how lush the Highlands were, but all of the beauty of the Highlands paled at the sight of the precious fig trees she loved. The grove had taken her heart and would not let go. It was filled with the power of memory, and above all with the spirit of the boy Edgar.

  By the time she’d return to the grove, it would not be as she remembered it.

  CHAPTER

  32

  MEAD’S HOLLOW

  Throughout the day Atherton released a dull roar as if it were taking a final, labored breath of air in its drive for the very bottom. The steady descent was easier to hear than feel, a lullaby of dark sounds that seemed to play forever and fade into the background as the clamor of the waterfall once had. Now and then it would rumble and howl, falling fast, then grinding slower, reawakening the senses of everyone on Atherton. But it never stopped completely as the Highlands had during the many days it took to crash into Tabletop.

  The nearer Maude and her companions came to the edge of Tabletop, the more parched and bleak it became. Dusty rocks marred the ground, and the air became harder to breathe. Maude stopped well short of the edge and pointed to a faraway place. Already they could see the Flatlands in the distance. Tabletop had moved lower than they or anyone else would have believed. The three of them looked back at the center of Atherton, where the Highlands had once risen from the land.

  “This isn’t home anymore,” she said. Her voice was dry and quiet. Morris wished he could pour a cup of water over the words, making them wet and fluid again. Maybe then they wouldn’t sound so hopeless. But he had to agree the absence of the cliff made Tabletop feel wrong somehow. Atherton looked empty. The cliff had been something to huddle against and make them feel sheltered and safe, but it was gone now, replaced by a feeling of dread Morris couldn’t shake.

  “It’s getting late,” he said. They had spoken little on the way, and he was surprised to hear his own fractured voice.

  The three of them continued toward the edge, slower now, but with purpose. When they came within ten steps, Amanda stopped.

  “I can’t go any farther,” she said. She was not a fierce woman like Maude, and the closer they’d come to the end, the more she’d wanted to turn back. She let Maude and Morris go the rest of the way alone.

  When they arrived at the very edge, they leaned out and looked down.

  “This cannot be,” said Maude, overcome. It was as if a vast monster had crept up behind her in a nightmare and now stood at her feet. It was not the same feeling she had felt when the Highlands had come within view for the first time. The Highlands were filled with people. What she saw before her now was a mystery that made a dark terror well up in her throat.

  Maude and Morris could see the jagged stones on its surface and the odd tangled green lines everywhere. But they could also see the strange creatures that caused them.

  They had arrived at the place where the waste from the village was dumped, including the bones and unwanted insides of the rabbits. Cleaners gathered here in great number before dark. Edgar had climbed down at night, when most of the Cleaners are wont to hide amidst the jagged rocks and only a few venture in search of a bone that might have been missed. But in the light they came by the hundreds to this place, searching for bones and blood, anything thrown over the edge that might feed their insatiable hunger.

  Maude’s and Morris’s stomachs turned at the sight of the squirming shapes below and smelled the scent of death wafting up. Maude had to fight back the urge to be sick, and she stumbled back from the edge in a daze.

  The sound of Tabletop working its way down drowned out the distant noise of Cleaners moving and snapping their teeth, but if it had been a quiet day, Morris and Maude would have heard the faint sound of bones breaking from below.

  “We may not be alone come morning,” she said.

  Morris nodded and stepped away. There was a large rock twice the size of his head nearby, and he picked it up, struggling to carry it back to where he’d stood. When he hurled it off the edge, he nearly lost his balance and went over with it. Amanda screamed and told him to get back, but Morris stayed and watched.

  The rock smashed directly into the head of a Cleaner. The injured animal jerked in every direction as if it were trying to take flight. Morris was appalled as he watched dozens of ravenous creatures attack the fallen beast.

  “We must warn the others,” said Morris. “If these creatures enter the villages, we’ll have no place to hide.”

  Maude went to Amanda and put her arm around her shoulders. “You and Morris will go to the grove. When you get there, send someone to the Village of Sheep. I’ll go back home and warn everyone.”

  Morris and Amanda hastened toward the grove, and Maude started off alone. She would go directly to Briney, then find a way to get word to Horace and his men. Tabletop and the Highlands must unite against the one foe. She repeated the sentiment Wallace had expressed earlier in the day. It’s our only hope.

  Maude was
better at thinking alone, always had been. She preferred the solitude of pushing her broom at the inn and letting Briney talk to the villagers. She had often thought of moving to the Village of Sheep and becoming a shepherdess, where she could be alone and think. But Briney would never leave the inn. She thought on these things in an effort to forget about what she’d seen in the Flatlands, but the sight of the stone hitting the creature below and the others attacking it kept firing back in her mind. She became obsessed with one thought near the end of her journey as the Village of Rabbits came into view in the distance.

  We must find a way to turn these monsters against one another.

  Lord Phineus stood before Mead’s head in the main chamber and studied it as he loved to do, running his fingers over the white nose, up to the forehead, and over the waves of hair carved into stone. He was thinking of Sir William, for some unknown reason, remembering what a challenge it had been to keep him in line.

  When Lord Phineus reached the back of Mead’s head, his mind cleared, and he put his other hand on the face, holding the entire piece firmly in his grip. He applied pressure one way, and Mead’s head began to move to the right. He did the same to the left, and then back again. When he pushed left once more, a sharp click! came from the floor behind Mead’s head. Something had been unlocked.

  He repeated the turning of the head in reverse order, which produced a different sort of clicking sound. Lord Phineus then enfolded the head with his arms, lifting it from its pedestal. He put his arm deep inside a shaft where the head had been and pulled out a key.

  Lord Phineus replaced the head and checked the locked door to the main chamber for any sound of someone outside.

  Carefully pushing aside the ivy that ran down the wall to the floor behind Mead’s head, he found a large stone slab below him with notches on each side that allowed him to lift the sheath of stone. Lord Phineus dragged it away with a loud grating noise, then looked down into the hole underneath. He drew a deep breath as he listened carefully for any unusual sounds.

  Lord Phineus felt a heavy dread come over him as his lighted wick illuminated the stairs leading down into the black. On the first stair were carved the words he’d read many times before on each journey to the source of all water: mead’s hollow. It was not a friendly passage, and the sight of it always made him shudder, but he had gone many times and knew the way well.

  When he was far enough down the steep stairs to seal himself in, he set his small bowl of fuel and flaming wick on a step at his feet. He listened carefully once more, gazing down the narrow passageway. Lord Phineus pulled the stone over the opening and was enveloped in darkness and shadow, only a weak orange light dancing from the wick at his feet.

  He carried with him two sharp wooden stakes to protect himself, and the key from Mead’s head. He also had a bag hanging from his side, which he touched nervously. It was filled with clumps of dry bread, for there were dangerous creatures in Mead’s Hollow. They would leave him to his errand as long as he gave them something to eat.

  Lord Phineus held the small flame out into the darkness, searching for the first of the small torches that he would light to guide his way. The walls before him were utterly covered with dead vines of brown and black ivy. They looked like the dried bones of some wild beast that would not let him pass. He shivered once more and began his journey beneath the House of Power. After a few steps, he heard a familiar low growl and put his hand in the bag of bread.

  Sir Emerik had indeed been standing at the door, quietly listening for the sounds he had heard before. He knew of the power of Mead’s head and of the passage known as Mead’s Hollow, but he had never known the pleasure of opening the passage. He wasn’t even sure until that moment where the key lay hidden, but now he felt certain that it was within the head itself, for he had heard the sounds of moving stone. Sir Emerik smiled grimly, thinking only of how he could do away with Lord Phineus, take control of the water, and rule all of Atherton.

  CHAPTER

  33

  INVERSION

  The grey of early evening was gone and only a dull smolder of light remained. It was approaching deep night on Atherton, and three figures were making their way across the silent world. The sound of quaking ground and grinding earth had vanished. There were no waterfalls roaring in the distance. The Cleaners were hidden quietly away in the jagged rocks. All of Atherton was hushed as a whisper.

  Edgar was used to making his way without much light, but the eerie silence made the world seem haunted in a way he’d never experienced at night before. It felt to Edgar like Atherton was dead.

  “Will it always stay so quiet?” asked Edgar nervously. “I don’t like it.”

  “It’s very odd,” said Vincent, who was walking in front of Edgar and Dr. Kincaid, leading the way.

  “I don’t mind the silence,” said Dr. Kincaid. “It’s far better than the sound of Cleaners filling the air.”

  It had been a long way across the Flatlands, but they were nearing the edge of Tabletop at last. They went on a little more without speaking a word.

  “Dr. Kincaid?”

  “Yes, Edgar.”

  “Thank you for bringing me with you.”

  There had been some arguing between Vincent and Dr. Kincaid about whether they should leave the boy behind in the safety of the flat. They wouldn’t tell Edgar where they were going, only that they would keep him safe.

  “You’ve been on your own for a long time,” said Dr. Kincaid. “Best you make these decisions for yourself.”

  “Why won’t you tell me where we’re going?”

  Dr. Kincaid didn’t answer right away, but he had been wondering how much to tell the boy for a while and thought he could tell him a little more.

  “There’s not a lot of time, Edgar. A few days, maybe a week, and our chance will be lost.”

  “You mean the Cleaners?” Edgar imagined them overrunning the grove and the village.

  “Not exactly,” said Dr. Kincaid, trying to pacify the boy’s imagination. “Our course is set, Edgar, but our destination must remain a mystery to you awhile longer. For now you must focus on the present.”

  Edgar had grown used to adventure, and the old man’s words appeased him, though he remained concerned about the days ahead. Dr. Kincaid tried to change the subject.

  “You should call me by a more friendly name, don’t you think? ‘Dr. Kincaid’ is so formal.”

  “What shall I call you?”

  Dr. Kincaid pondered the idea a moment, rubbing his big earlobe between his thumb and knuckle.

  “My full name is Luther Mead Kincaid. ‘Mead’ is rather odd, don’t you think? I don’t know what my mother was thinking. Why don’t you call me Luther?”

  “I’ll try,” said Edgar, but he knew it would be difficult.

  Vincent motioned for the two of them to stop talking and be still. Hardly breathing, they heard a soft clanging sound. Vincent waved them to one side and guided them slowly through the waning light. As they continued on, the sound went away, and Vincent turned to his companions.

  “A den of Cleaners,” he said. “Bedded down for the night. We are likely to find at least a few moving about in small groups, but most of them won’t come out until they can see again.”

  “How many Cleaners are there?” asked Edgar, hoping for a small enough number that Vincent could kill them all.

  “More than there are people on Atherton,” said Vincent. “When light comes, they’ll crowd the edge, if there is an edge.”

  The idea of thousands of Cleaners coming out in the morning light to find no edge to stop them from advancing was more than Edgar could dare to imagine.

  “I must go straight to the grove,” said Edgar. He’d been concerned all along for Isabel and the others in the village, but being so near had reinvigorated his determination to find his friends.

  “We will make a point of going through there,” said Dr. Kincaid, feeling the gloom that surrounded the boy.

  They walked on in silence for a l
ong time, until the sound of the sleeping Cleaners was too far away to be heard, and the three of them were all alone in the Flatlands. The farther they went, the more he couldn’t believe Vincent had carried him all that way on the night he’d fallen.

  “Are we coming near the edge of Tabletop?” asked Dr. Kincaid, his feet beginning to hurt from the long walk. The words were just out of his mouth when the sound of breaking bones came from somewhere in front of them and very near.

  “Get back!” cried Vincent. He’d been using the butt end of a spear as a walking stick, but now it was turned with the pointed end straight out to protect them.

  “There are two! Stay back!” Vincent yelled again.

  Without thinking, Edgar took his sling from his pocket and two black figs from his bag. He held one in his hand and put the other in the sling, stepped out of the way, and began swinging the sling over his head. Dr. Kincaid didn’t know what Edgar was doing.

  “Edgar! What is that you’ve got there?”

  But Edgar was deep in concentration and didn’t respond.

  Vincent thrust his spear over and over at one of the two Cleaners as it charged and swung its head viciously. Its tail thrashed wildly, pulling a dozen of the Cleaner’s back feet off the ground. Vincent finally found a good position and stabbed it through the open mouth, but when he did, the Cleaner clamped down on the spear with its jagged teeth and wouldn’t let go. It lay dying on the ground, the spear stuck deep in its middle, but the spear had been lost.

  The second Cleaner charged for Vincent as he tried to pull a second weapon from where it was stored on his back. It was then that Dr. Kincaid heard the snap! of the sling as Edgar hurled the black fig through the air.

  The black fig slammed into the Cleaner’s head, and the creature reeled back in pain and surprise. Edgar loaded the second black fig and began swinging it over his head.

  “Wait until he comes for us,” said Vincent. Whatever the boy was doing would not kill a Cleaner, but it did appear to inflict some damage.

 
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