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The house of power, p.24
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       The House of Power, p.24

           Patrick Carman
 
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  “Yes. It’s me,” said Edgar. The two did not know each other so much as know of each other.

  “I’ve been gone awhile, but I’m back. There are some things I need to tell the people in the village. Can you let me pass?”

  The man let the club he was holding hang down at the side of his leg and peered through the low branches of the trees, then his eyes settled back on the boy.

  “Don’t expect things to be the same as when you left,” said the man. He was tired and unwilling to tell a young boy bad news. “Go that way.” He pointed with the club toward the village.

  Edgar watched the man pocket the rock he’d held and clumsily make his way back up into the limbs of the tree. As Edgar walked past, the man spoke.

  “Is it true you climbed all the way to the top of the cliffs and back again?”

  Edgar nodded in the darkness. “I did.”

  “And to the very bottom—to the Flatlands—you climbed down there as well?”

  “I did,” answered Edgar. It seemed that word of his adventures had spread.

  “I don’t believe you,” grumbled the man. And he didn’t. It had been so far to the bottom, and so difficult a stone surface to climb. It didn’t seem possible that anyone—let alone a boy of eleven or twelve—could climb down.

  Edgar walked on, feeling suddenly in a rush to finish his task and get back to Dr. Kincaid and Vincent. He had two similar encounters along the way, in which men dropped from trees, asked him questions, and let him pass. Each of them knew Edgar by sight if not by name. He had been a quiet orphan boy from the grove, a good worker, a familiar face. There were stories circulating concerning his recent whereabouts that were hard to believe.

  When Edgar reached the clearing before the village, he spotted a surprising number of wakeful men and women moving in the shadows of open fires. He did not see Mr. Ratikan among them and began to wonder where the master of the grove was hiding.

  Edgar stepped out into the open of the clearing and shouted toward the villagers. “It’s me, Edgar!”

  A small group approached, a single lit torch among them, and soon the two parties were shouting back and forth as the gap closed between them.

  “Edgar?”

  “Yes, it’s me!”

  “Where have you been hiding?”

  When Edgar didn’t answer, another question filled the air.

  “Have you seen Isabel?”

  This question scared Edgar. As he met the group in the middle of the clearing, he saw that the man holding the torch was Charles, Isabel’s father.

  “Have you seen her, Edgar?” he asked, bending down on one knee. Charles knew his daughter liked the boy and had been hoping the two were together.

  “I haven’t seen her in days,” said Edgar. “Where is she?”

  Charles had the look of a man whose last hope had been dashed.

  “She’s gone,” he said. The voice was cracked and dry, full with emotion.

  “What do you mean, gone?”

  Charles shrugged and Edgar thought the man’s shoulders looked unbearably heavy. A dead silence enveloped the clearing. Edgar’s mind raced to all the places Isabel could be, for he couldn’t bring himself to believe Isabel was lost. Charles put his arm around the boy and the group began walking back to the village.

  “Where have you been?” asked Charles, stopping short and looking down at Edgar. “There are rumors of a climbing boy…”

  Edgar took a moment to breathe deeply the smell of the grove before answering. The place smelled dry and dusty, like it was gasping for relief from a waterless world it couldn’t escape. And there was something more. Though it was dark, Edger felt a sense of discomfort at the thought of looking up and finding the Highlands were no longer there. Without the cliffs, danger lurked from in front and behind the grove in ways that it never had before, because the world of Atherton was flat.

  “I’ve been to the top, before the Highlands fell,” said Edgar. “And I’ve been to the bottom, before the Flatlands rose up.” Edgar looked up to where the Highlands had once been. “But I suppose that’s little more than a legend now, because all the cliffs are gone.” Somehow, Edgar got the distinct feeling that Charles wanted to believe him.

  They continued on beneath the canopy of trees and when they arrived at the shattered remains of the village, a small group gathered near a fire—Charles, Edgar, and a few others. Edgar told them everything he was meant to, leaving nothing out. He was surprised to find they already had knowledge of the Cleaners, though Edgar’s description of their size and viciousness startled them. For his part, Edgar heard of Mr. Ratikan’s demise and the battle with the Highlands, all new information he could barely bring himself to believe.

  But even the knowledge of Mr. Ratikan’s death paled by comparison to the news of Isabel’s disappearance. Edgar asked over and over again about her—where she had been seen last, to whom she had spoken, whatever was known. The more he learned, the more he had a sense that she was not only alive, but that she may not be alone. He suspected that Isabel had found Samuel, his friend from the Highlands—and that they had gone somewhere they should not have.

  CHAPTER

  2

  INTRUDERS

  “I think we fell asleep.”

  “I believe you’re right.”

  Samuel and Isabel were hiding in an abandoned drain carved into the earth near the wall that surrounded the House of Power. They had been lying in the narrow space for several hours, like a long snake that began with Samuel’s head and ended with Isabel’s feet. With the absence of water on Atherton, a profound thirst had settled on them both.

  “It’s still dark outside,” said Samuel, his dry voice only a whisper. “We should keep moving before light begins to creep back into the courtyard. We just need to be quiet and careful.”

  “If you say so,” said Isabel, but she was unsure. She wished Edgar were there with them. Isabel had always felt safe in the grove when he was near, and she missed his presence. As Samuel

  started moving slowly forward through the drain, she began to wonder if their search for water would come to a bad end.

  “Where are you going?” asked Isabel. She could hear him shifting back and forth and moving away from her.

  “Come on,” answered Samuel. “It’s late and the courtyard will be empty.”

  Samuel felt a surprising confidence about his plans to find the hidden source of water within the House of Power. He had spent his entire childhood sneaking around this place and he knew its secrets. And more than that, in recent days he’d finally broken free of a long-endured fear of failure that he’d experienced since the loss of his father. He felt a new and unexpected boldness as the night grew deeper.

  Isabel had no idea where they were going, but the two went on in silence, dirt falling all around them as they proceeded. The drain rose slowly before them in the dark until Samuel came to a place surrounded by something much harder than dirt.

  “This will be a tight squeeze,” whispered Samuel. “Try not to make any more noise than you must.”

  They had come to where the drain cut through the wall around the House of Power. Samuel reached out with his arms and gently shimmied back and forth, making slow progress until his fingers touched the hard edge of stone on the other side. He pulled as hard as he could, feeling bits of falling rock stinging his eyes, until he made it to the other side of the wall, where the drain widened to a space big enough for both of them.

  Isabel’s smaller build allowed her to move quickly, and soon she was standing next to Samuel in the dark, where they faced each other in the small space. They were uncomfortably close.

  “This is the end,” Samuel said in a quiet voice Isabel could barely hear. “Follow me and don’t make a sound.” The two stood silent for another moment as Samuel listened for the echo of footsteps overhead.

  Then Isabel heard a grating sound as crumbs of dirt filled the air. Samuel held a square stepping stone from within the House of Power. He pushed it aside c
arefully, put his hands over the ledge, and pulled himself up with great effort.

  The top of Samuel’s head poked out into the courtyard of the House of Power and he scanned the area. There were dots of light here and there where torches had been left glowing.

  “Are you sure this is a good idea?” whispered Isabel. The moment of entering the House of Power, where Lord Phineus ruled, had come. Isabel had always enjoyed a sense of bravado in the shelter of the grove, but this was different. She wasn’t sure she wanted to get so close to something that felt of darkness and evil.

  “Take my feet and push me up,” said Samuel. He was holding steady above her, but in past adventures of his own he’d only gone down the drain, not up it, then he’d snuck back into the House of Power through the gate.

  Isabel hesitated. She was farther away from home than she’d ever been, doing something that could get her into real trouble. What was she doing with this boy from the Highlands?

  “We’ve got to go now, Isabel—I mean right now.”

  Isabel took Samuel’s feet in her hands without thought or emotion, almost as if someone else was doing it and she was only watching it happen, and pushed until Samuel was halfway out and only his legs and rear end dangled wildly at the top of the hole. A moment later he had scurried out entirely.

  Just then something happened that made Isabel think she’d done the wrong thing. Samuel looked down at her for a split second with panic in his eyes, and then he placed the square stone back over the hole. Isabel was all alone in the darkness of the drain.

  Sir Emerik was sure he’d heard something. There had been a lot on his mind and he hadn’t slept but a few hours before waking in the middle of the night, and yet he felt certain he wasn’t imagining the noise. It had sounded like a piece of stone falling into a slot from a corner of the courtyard. What could it be at such a late hour but the sound of someone sneaking around?

  He stood calm and unmoving, listening for the sound to repeat. Though it didn’t come again, Sir Emerik was a highly suspicious sort of man, and once his senses were alerted it was hard for him to turn them off. Something’s not right. I must go and see for myself.

  As he moved ever so quietly along the winding path of the courtyard, Sir Emerik pondered his own grim circumstances. His home, the Highlands, had come crashing down and now sat even with Tabletop. Control over the House of Power, which sat alone at the center of the Highlands, seemed precarious. It was at once a time of great danger and a moment of opportunity. But first he would have to deal with Lord Phineus. And there was also the boy Samuel, who had escaped unexpectedly from his grasp. Samuel might cause me trouble. He knows far too much.

  He would need a torch in order to search the courtyard properly, and this was a bit of a problem for Sir Emerik. He touched the scabs on his head and his eye began to twitch. Lately it happened involuntarily whenever he came within a few feet of a flame. He cursed the boy Edgar in his mind, remembering how Edgar had burned all the hair off his head. It was a memory he couldn’t shake. Sir Emerik took the torch with a shaky hand, holding it as far away from his face as he could. The flickering firelight made all the colors in the courtyard turn a bleary shade of orange.

  Before long, he was standing near the stone that Samuel had moved to enter the House of Power. Isabel could hear him standing directly overhead on the stone. She had a terrible thought that whoever it was might break through and fall on top of her. Or maybe the person standing above her knew of the old hidden drain cover and was getting ready to slide it off. She kept very still, barely breathing as she waited for the person to leave.

  From his hiding place, Samuel could see Sir Emerik as his

  boots clicked back and forth on the floor of the courtyard. The landscape within the courtyard was full with deep green rows of hedges and bushes trimmed into curious shapes, and it was easy for a small person like Samuel to encase himself within the grasp of branches or vines, completely hidden from view. Samuel’s anxiety rose as he watched Sir Emerik pause as if he’d found something. He had heard one stone sound different than the rest, as if it were covering a hollow space.

  Sir Emerik lowered himself to the ground, carefully whipping his red robe behind him, and then with one hand he ran his fingers around the edge of the stone, feeling for a way to remove it. As he looked at the dancing flames of the torch in his other hand, his eye twitched, moving him to set the torch down next to him where it burned dimly on the cold floor.

  Samuel didn’t know what to do when Sir Emerik took hold of the square stone by its corners. It crossed his mind to bolt from within the hedge and run through the courtyard to distract Sir Emerik, but he couldn’t risk anyone knowing of his presence in the House of Power. This thought froze him where he hid until Sir Emerik had removed the stone and was peering down into the drain.

  Sir Emerik held the torch down into the hole, but he didn’t see anything, at least not anything he didn’t expect to see. He sniffed the air and touched the dirt with his hands, then pushed the stone back where it had been. This time he noticed small dirty fingerprints on the square slab. Sir Emerik looked up, suddenly sure. Samuel has returned by this secret way. He must be found and gotten rid of.

  Sir Emerik rose to his feet, waving the flame over the hedge as he searched the courtyard. “I know you’re in here, Samuel,” he said softly in a raspy voice. “You can’t hide from me. You should know that by now.” He remembered how he’d found Samuel only a few days before with a secret book, how the book had foretold the Highlands’s descent into Tabletop, and how he’d captured the boy and locked him away in the House of Power. “Come out and we’ll go to see your mother in the kitchen. She’ll be very glad to see you.”

  The idea of finding his mother seized Samuel and he nearly burst out of his hiding place. Samuel could hear and feel Sir Emerik getting closer. A few more seconds and he would be caught. He was ready to spring out of the hedge, to run into the twisting array of creeping plants. But just as Samuel was about to move there came another voice, much louder and meaner than Sir Emerik’s.

  “Emerik!”

  The booming sound of Lord Phineus calling for Sir Emerik filled the air as he shouted from the window of the main chamber. Hidden in a part of the courtyard that lay beneath a thick canopy of vine-covered trellises, Sir Emerik was momentarily torn. Though he felt sure he was close to finding the concealed boy, he knew he should not keep his master waiting.

  “You can’t hide from me for long, Samuel,” said Sir Emerik. His eye twitched once more at the sight of the flaming torch in his hand. “You should come out now and save me the trouble of having to find you.”

  “Emerik!”

  The howling voice roared again, and this time Sir Emerik didn’t hesitate. The anger was growing in the lord of the House of Power, and it would not do to keep him waiting a second longer than he had to. He took one more look at the hedge, cursed the boy who hid there, and moved off toward the main chamber.

  When Samuel felt sure he was alone, he crept out and removed the square slab of rock that covered the drain. He couldn’t see very far down, so he whispered Isabel’s name and waited. Nothing.

  The House of Power was stirring from the sound of Lord Phineus’s voice, and soon people would be everywhere. Just when Samuel felt ready to jump into the hole and search for Isabel, he heard her moving around. Once his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he could see her head poking out from farther back in the drain where it curved and narrowed.

  “I am so ready to get out of here,” said Isabel. Her face was smeared with dirt and dead leaves hung in her tangled black hair. Her dark, thick brows lay heavy over her eyes as she looked up at Samuel.

  “Better hurry,” whispered Samuel, glancing between the drain and the courtyard. “We’ve almost missed our chance.”

  Either Isabel was heavier than he’d expected or he was weaker than he’d hoped; regardless, it was a mighty struggle pulling Isabel out of the drain and into the courtyard. She slid back down more than once befo
re she was finally able to get her elbows over the edge and hoist herself the rest of the way out.

  Samuel quickly moved the stepping stone back over the passage and grabbed Isabel’s hand. “He knows we’re here,” he said, pulling her along the vine-covered wall. “But he’ll be gone awhile.”

  “I hope he didn’t send a guard to do his looking for him,” said Isabel.

  “He wouldn’t do that,” said Samuel. “Sir Emerik wants me dead, and none of the guards would kill me if they found me. They’d take me straight to Lord Phineus, which is just what Sir Emerik is afraid of.”

  Isabel started to ask him why Sir Emerik wanted him dead, but Samuel silenced her with a raised hand. Then he was r unning, waving to Isabel to follow. They swished past winding hedges, slithered under vines, and crawled beneath low, rounded walls until they reached the other side of the courtyard. Samuel heard the sound of boots on stone coming near and seized Isabel’s hand once more, pulling her down into a sea of thick ivy that lay before a bone white wall dancing with shadows.

  When the guard had passed, they made their way up a set of darkened stairs to a narrow hall with a rail of grey stone that ran the length of one wall. At the very end of the hall was one of Samuel’s favorite hiding places, an alcove buried in thick ivy. The ivy crept down the side of the wall like dark green water, filling the space as high as their heads with waves of tiny leaves. It felt to Isabel as if a thousand tiny green hands were pulling her inside as she crept forward into the alcove.

  “I wish Edgar was here,” said Isabel, feeling the itchy touch of leaves against her face.

  Samuel peered out from their hiding place, which had a commanding view of the whole courtyard and the guard towers at the gate. He was thinking of the place they would soon be going, to a set of stairs leading up to the main chamber, in which Mead’s Head could be found.

 
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