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The house of power, p.3
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       The House of Power, p.3

           Patrick Carman
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  “This can’t be right,” muttered Edgar.

  Early evening had come, and he had arrived at the cliff while everyone else was busy with dinner. It was lighter than when he’d come in the past, and at first he wondered if maybe that was why things seemed different.

  He put his hands on the deep red and brown surface before him. Then he went about climbing up the first few feet, keeping a close eye out in case anyone appeared unexpectedly. With the added light he would need to be more cautious. He dropped down to the ground, moved to his left about ten steps, and put his hands on the cliff once more. He stood looking at the face of the cliff shaking his head, wondering what it could mean. The wall, it seemed, was lower then it had been three weeks before; about two inches lower. All of Edgar’s holds—the places where he had countless times before set his hands and feet—were lower to the ground.

  Could it be that he’d grown so much in the three weeks since he’d last been here? He’d never heard of such a thing. He stretched out his arms thinking maybe they’d grown longer, but they looked the same as before. Still, he was certain: the holds were lower than they’d been all his life. Something was altered.

  “I must try to get more sleep,” said Edgar, certain he must be making things up in his head. He tried to put whatever had changed out of his mind and fidgeted nervously with his fingers at the pocket on the side of his pants. He held two black figs and the sling there and hoped he wouldn’t need them.

  Edgar took a last deep breath, rubbed his hands together, and began climbing. Once he found his familiar holds again, his mind was focused and he moved swiftly along the rock face.

  He thought about what the man who’d left the book might have been like. If you could see me now, I suppose you’d send me to bed with no pudding. He laughed at his own remark. Edgar hadn’t enjoyed the luxury of fig pudding before bed in all his life.

  Edgar looked up and reflected on the distance to the Highlands above. He’d thought about it many times in the previous few days, and he was aware once again that he would be doing most of the climb in the dead of night, something he had never done. But the time to turn back had come and gone, so there would be no gain from doubting himself now.

  After he was a hundred yards up he looked down for the first time. Tabletop lay beneath him—his flat home of groves, pastures, and small villages. If a person walked along the far edge of Tabletop, it would take a week to travel all the way around. Walking near the Highland cliffs cut the time to a few days, and the distance between villages could be walked in half a day or less at a brisk pace. Mr. Ratikan had never given Edgar the opportunity to explore the world beyond the grove, so Edgar knew these things only from what others had told him.

  As he held tight, catching his breath with the cool air of approaching night, he caught a glimpse of the world beyond Tabletop. Far below—miles it seemed—was another land, a vast and gloomy place. The Flatlands, much bigger than Tabletop, were a sprawling, dark mystery that few understood and no one spoke of. From where Edgar clutched the rocks he could see only a little of the Flatlands. The view had been much better when he had snuck out of the grove one afternoon and lay down at the very edge of Tabletop, where a sheer cliff face led to the Flatlands below. He’d stuck his head out over the edge only once and had never gone back. Could there be people living in such a wasteland? Or was there something else—something not human? Edgar wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

  Edgar began climbing once more, this time with more force. He had spent a long day in the groves, and it would seem that he should have grown tired quickly. But Edgar had extraordinary skill and stamina. It was as though the cliff had been laid flat and he was merely crawling on all fours as fast as his feet and hands would carry him. And then, suddenly, he stopped.

  He felt a strange sensation start in his feet and move up through his body. He was halfway to the top, which was farther up the wall than he’d ever gone, when the cliff began shaking in his hands. Edgar tightened his grip and wondered if he’d made a disastrous mistake trying to climb up to the Highlands. The tremor built in power, showering Edgar with bits of dust and rock.

  Edgar was hanging like a broken limb from a dried-out tree. He was scaling unknown places, and the rock face was only a shadow as he went. Far below him on Tabletop, the first fires of evening were beginning to burn. What little he could see of the vertical rise above him was steep rock with few holds.

  As the faint smell of smoke from the fires below drifted up around him, Edgar’s foot slipped, spraying pebbles out into the night air. The thought of falling entered his mind for the first time. With a shudder, Edgar began to doubt if he would ever return home again.




  The time that passed after dinner and before nightfall were quiet if you were a child living in the Highlands, for parents were very strict about keeping their children away from the perilous cliffs in the long, grey light of evening. But Samuel was a boy living within the House of Power—a palatial complex of courtyards, hallways, stairs, and passages perfect for exploration—and his life was different.

  Samuel was very happy to spend entire days—sometimes entire weeks—doing nothing but reading books. This gave the boy a rather pasty complexion, as though he were always just leaving the bakery and his face and arms had been covered in a thin dusting of flour. Samuel was every bit as skinny as Edgar, but for entirely different reasons. His mother worked in the kitchen of the House of Power, and this provided him access to plenty of food, but Samuel’s appetite had always been meager, and his interest in food was focused primarily on anything that tasted sweet.

  His mother worked day and night and usually did not return to their room off the courtyard until very late. During the evening, Samuel often wandered the halls of the House of Power after he’d grown tired of lying on his bed reading. The main floor of the House of Power felt as if it were inside and outside all at once. Some of the halls were laid out under arches surrounding the courtyards where vines twisted endlessly around small trees. The abundant greenery of the courtyards spilled uncontrolled onto the stone walls and cobbled floors, as if it were trying to tear everything down and take over. The place had an unnatural quiet that made people want to speak in a whisper.

  Sometimes Samuel would visit his mother after roaming the halls and ask for a treat or a cup of tea, and often she would respond by giving him some errand instead. We find Samuel on just such a night, a night of walking round and round down echoing corridors. He climbed the narrow staircase near his room until it ended at a door he always found locked. Back down the stairs and through the halls he continued until he couldn’t stand going without a treat any longer.

  “Maybe she will give me a cup of sweet milk if I offer a little help,” Samuel said out loud. He heard the echo of footsteps coming toward him from a long way off. Not wanting to talk with anyone, he made his way through a rounded archway, out into the open courtyard. When he arrived at the kitchen, he was not certain he wanted to go in for fear of being given too much work to do, so he peeked around the corner of the door to see what his mother was doing.

  She was frail but lovely to look at, though it was immediately clear when Samuel saw her that something was troubling his mother. She was dashing back and forth between the cupboards looking for something, her dark hair unwound partway out of a bun and dancing around the room behind her as she went. Her eye caught sight of Samuel hiding in the doorway.

  “Figs and toast wanted in the main chamber,” she said in a breathless voice. Whenever Samuel’s mother became anxious, a red blotch appeared below her lip and would not go away for several hours. She rubbed the red mark nervously, searching for something behind the kneading table where she did most of her work.

  “Why must they ask for things they know we don’t have?” she went on. “I can’t make figs appear out of the air, and we’ve been out for weeks. Yet they keep asking for them, every night, only to torment me.”

el’s mother kept rubbing the red blotch of skin below her lip until Samuel walked into the room and stood beside her.

  “It’s not going to go away if you keep touching it like that.”

  Samuel felt some pity for his mother, but only a little, for he knew what was coming next.

  “Will you run upstairs and tell them we have no figs, Samuel? I’ll give you something you can take, something sweet. Can you do that for me?”

  Samuel’s mother hadn’t always been so frail. There was a time when she’d enjoyed a higher station in life and demonstrated more poise, but then Samuel’s father had passed away in a dreadful accident. When it happened, her thin outer shell of confidence was shaken and she seemed to crack into a thousand pieces all at once. Her station in the kitchen was the result of the loss of Samuel’s father, for he had been a man of great importance before the accident. Without his authority, Samuel’s mother had been relegated to a life of servitude.

  “Can you put something sweet on the tray for me as well?” asked Samuel. His mother was already busy setting a tray of toast sprinkled with fig powder, along with some cups and a covered bowl of warm tea.

  “I’ll get you something when you return. Just be careful not to drop the tray or spill anything on the way.” She held a round tray out to Samuel with a concerned look. “Can you manage it?”

  The tray wasn’t very big or heavy, but Samuel groaned all the same when he took it from her. “Yes, mother, I can manage it just fine.”

  Samuel made his way through the courtyard and into the House of Power. The pathway leading up to the entrance was made of a great many stones. There were openings throughout the pathway where small trees shot up out of the ground, their trunks covered in vines. The pathway ended at an archway with no door. On the other side there was a round room leading in three directions: a wide hall to the right, another to the left, and a steep stairway up the middle.

  Samuel took the tray up the stairs and when he reached the top, there was a man standing before him with round cheeks and bushy grey eyebrows. He didn’t have any hair on top of his head.

  “What have you got there, Samuel?”

  It was Horace, whose job was to keep people away from Lord Phineus when he didn’t want to be disturbed. The Lord didn’t ever want to be disturbed, so Horace was a near permanent fixture at the top of the stairs.

  “Some treats for the main chamber,” answered Samuel.

  Horace peered closely at the tray and snatched one of the toasts away.

  “You may pass,” he said, then devoured the toast in one bite and swept his arm open in a grand gesture of invitation toward the main chamber. Samuel smiled, for though they had little occasion to see one another, he liked Horace and his theatrical ways.

  Samuel hurried into the cool of the upper hall toward the enormous door at the end, eager to finish his errand and return for his promised dessert. He set the tray on the floor and knocked on the door. As he stood back up, the door opened, and Sir Philip stood towering over Samuel in a red robe like the one his father used to wear.

  Sir Philip glared at the tray on the floor. “Did Horace take the figs from you or have we yet to see more production from the grove?”

  As he stooped to pick up the tray, Samuel wished he hadn’t gone to visit his mother.

  “I’m afraid there are still no figs to speak of, sir. The harvest has yet to come.”

  Samuel’s hands were shaking as he held the tray, and the cups began to rattle. Past the doorway he saw a wide table inside the room, behind which sat Lord Phineus. He also wore a red robe, darker than Sir Philip’s and with a wide, black band trimming its sleeves and hood.

  “Let the boy through, Sir Philip. It’s not his fault we have to wait for the things we want. A harvest comes when it’s ready, not when we demand it.”

  Samuel hesitated at the door. There was a dark presence about Lord Phineus, and it crossed Samuel’s mind to set down the tray right where he was standing and run back to his room.

  “Come on, then, let’s see what you have there before whatever it is gets cold.”

  Samuel crept into the room and set the tray down on the table. He looked to his right and saw there was another man gazing out one of the windows where vines crept in, covering some of the walls and floor. It was Sir Emerik, the last of the three men who controlled almost everything in the Highlands and Tabletop below. Not long ago his own father, Sir William, had been the fourth of these powerful men.

  To his left, Samuel noticed a single column of white stone, which stood as tall as he was. On its top sat the carved stone head of a man.

  “I see you are intrigued by Mead’s head,” said Lord Phineus. Samuel jerked his head back to focus his attention on Lord Phineus.

  “I was only looking.”

  Lord Phineus smiled and beckoned the boy closer.

  “It’s a favorite thing of mine. Best you don’t touch it.”

  Sir Emerik crossed over to the table and leaned down, whispering something to Lord Phineus in a voice that sounded like crumpling paper. Lord Phineus didn’t seem very interested. He absently took the cover off the tea, and a puff of sweet-smelling steam rose into the cool air.

  “We still miss having your father on the board of elders,” said Sir Emerik in a raspy voice that made Samuel want to cover his ears. “He was very knowledgeable, but we’re trying our best to manage.”

  “Let me ask you something, Samuel,” said Lord Phineus, reaching across the table and taking a piece of toast. “Do you miss having your father around? I mean, were the two of you close, or are you more of a mother’s boy?”

  Samuel’s face flushed and he looked down at his feet. He wanted only to leave the room and run back to the kitchen to yell at his mother for making him bring the tray. Lord Phineus set down his toast and reached his hand out over the table. He put his finger under the boy’s chin, lifting it up, and Samuel tried to look away but couldn’t.

  Lord Phineus had a cruel look on his face, as though he’d knowingly hurt the boy by mentioning his father. “Be a gem and tell your mother to bring me some fig butter in the morning with my bread, won’t you?”

  “But there are no figs, Lord.”

  “I know. Ask her anyway. When I see her in the courtyard, I’ll be amused by that little red spot under her lip.”

  Lord Phineus picked up the toast he’d set aside and examined it, considering whether or not he wanted to take a bite.

  “You may go, Samuel.”

  Samuel turned to leave and found Sir Philip standing in front of him. He came to an abrupt stop and wouldn’t look up. The familiar red robe was all Samuel could see, and it made him wish his father were there to scare all the cruelty out of the room.

  “Step aside, Philip,” said Lord Phineus. “Soon enough we’ll put him to work, and I’m quite sure we can provide him with labor that will make a man out of him yet.”

  When Samuel was on the other side of the door, he ran down the hall, passed Horace without saying a word, and stumbled down the stairs toward the courtyard.

  Samuel was out of breath by the time he stopped running. He looked back and saw how far he was from the House of Power, out in the open fields that lay before the edge of the Highlands. It wasn’t a terribly long run, but Samuel was not in the habit of running or climbing. He passed through the field into a meadow of green grass that reached as high as his chest, and continued through a thicket of twisting trees.

  Finally he reached a place where the grass turned to earth and rock and the trees fell away. Here he could see in the grey of night that there was a line where the ground turned to black: the edge of the Highlands. It was a dangerous place. A sudden stumble or a tiny push from behind and that would be the end of Samuel.

  He lay down on the ground and hung his head out over the edge of the Highlands, lost in the memories of his past life, a life when his father was still alive and his mother was a different person. Down below he saw firelight and smelled a faint but rich aroma of burning wood and b
lack figs. He was above the grove and to the side of the nearest waterfall, which ran close to the House of Power. As he lay there he wondered what the people of Tabletop did at the end of a day of working in the grove. He stayed at the edge thinking for a long time, until he felt tired and began to drift off to sleep. It was a dangerous thing to do at the edge of the world.

  Samuel wasn’t sure how long he’d been asleep when he heard a sound that startled him awake. At first he couldn’t figure out where the noise was coming from, but as he sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes he understood. The sound was coming from beneath him. Samuel leaned his head slowly over the edge of the Highlands, peering into the darkness below. And there, to his astonishment, he saw something no one in the Highlands had ever seen before.

  Someone was climbing up the cliff.




  It was nearing the darkest part of night, and Samuel began to wonder if he had only dreamed that someone was climbing up the side of the cliff. He was certain whatever it was had arms and a head, but it seemed as though it were smaller than it ought to have been for how close it was. Maybe it wasn’t a person at all, but a creature of some kind, come to grab hold of little children and pull them over the edge into a cavern on the cliff somewhere below.

  Samuel glanced urgently over his shoulder toward the House of Power and wondered if he ought to alert everyone to a possible invasion. But then Samuel heard coughing and a small voice mumbling to itself, and he turned back, looking down at the approaching figure. He realized that it wasn’t a monster at all, but a boy. A boy. Could it really be?

  Getting to his feet, Samuel walked in silence along the edge of the cliff until he was right over the ascending boy, and then he lay down once more. Looking over the edge, he began to ponder his options. Surely Lord Phineus and the others in the House of Power would want to know there was a person invading the Highlands. There might even be a reward for Samuel’s valiant effort.

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