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The house of power, p.7
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       The House of Power, p.7

           Patrick Carman
 
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  After a lingering silence that seemed to last forever, Edgar slowly rose onto his feet until his two eyes peered out over the field of yellow. He looked toward the trees, but there was nothing; then he turned the other way, and there he saw what had made the noise.

  They were large animals, ten times the size of a sheep, a hundred times the size of a rabbit, with enormous noses protruding from long necks. They were fenced in, eating the yellow grass only a short distance away. One looked up and made the wet, sneezy noise again. It looked at Edgar but seemed indifferent to his presence.

  The animals were stunning to look at, and yet they only held Edgar’s gaze for a moment, for behind them lay the entire Highlands in full view. Edgar’s wildest imagination could not have prepared him for what he saw.

  The Highlands looked alive, as if the very land itself were breathing. There were fields of deep green and gold rolling uncontained as far as Edgar could see. Scattered between them were small groves of the trees with the milky white trunks. Bright blue streams meandered in sharp curves back and forth, cutting the land into pieces. The deep green and gold meadows turned pale at the streams’ edge, as though their color had been washed away by the power of water. Edgar followed the nearest stream with his eyes—back and forth through the grass—until he couldn’t be sure where one blue band of water ended and another began.

  His eyes settled on the very center of the Highlands where the twisting streams found their beginning. There was a wide hill with a slow rise, and on the very top was a white stone formation surrounded by an even whiter stone wall. The water, it seemed, was coming from somewhere atop the hill, within the white structure.

  Edgar felt the dry roof of his mouth with an equally dry tongue and wanted nothing more than to walk to the nearest channel of water and quench his thirst. But there were small groups of homes in every direction along the streams, and he was afraid he might be seen. The giant animals moved off in a group, and he could feel them pounding the earth with their feet. Could it be they that had made the Highlands move?

  The animals had been spooked by someone entering the fenced area. It was a man wearing grey-blue trousers and a long, cream-colored shirt. Another man followed behind the first, and the two began talking as they worked with the animals. Edgar became nervous and shuffled along on his knees in the grass until he reached the large trees. There he saw no one and decided to run low along the tall grass in search of water. If he could stay out of sight and keep moving through the line of trees, he would eventually arrive at one of the three streams.

  The curving blue stream he’d seen was moving so slowly and quietly, Edgar couldn’t hear it. He listened for the sound of a waterfall, but suddenly realized that the sound of water falling off the edge of the Highlands would be very different than the roar of water hitting Tabletop. He ran, hunched over next to the grass, until his mouth was so dry he wasn’t sure he could swallow anymore.

  Edgar began to think that coming to the Highlands had been a mistake. If he’d stayed in the grove, Isabel would have brought water and food. But he couldn’t make it back down now on what little strength he had left. He wasn’t even sure he could survive the day all alone and confused. What if one of those beasts came after him? What if he were discovered by a guard and thrown off the cliff as punishment?

  Looking for some scrap of comfort, Edgar took the book he’d been carrying out of the pocket on the front of his shirt. His book. He opened it and looked at the words he couldn’t read, wondering what they meant. Atherton is not what you think it is. Edgar gazed out along the trees and the grass and spoke with a dry, cracked whisper.

  “I’ve got to find Samuel.”

  He put the book back in his pocket and continued searching desperately for a stream of cool, clear water that would save him.

  CHAPTER

  10

  MR. RATIKAN’S EXPERIMENT

  The path narrowed until Edgar couldn’t run without brushing up against the trees and the tall grass as he went. When the trail disappeared entirely, he found himself walking through a sea of yellow grassland that stood well above his head. So it came as a shock when he suddenly broke free of the high meadow and fell face first into a crystal-clear stream.

  Edgar had never felt the sting of icy water before, and when he came up for air he blubbered and coughed. He felt more awake than he ever had—cold and alive with water dripping down his face. This was a far cry from the warm, dirty pool he bathed in once a week in Tabletop.

  The stream didn’t even reach his knees, but it was so clear he could see the stone bottom of the channel streaked with green and gold. He’d never stood in water like this, and he wasn’t sure what to do. It was like standing in a sea of figs with so much abundance all around him he couldn’t think to take some of it and eat. He thought he might cry or laugh out loud, but instead he leaned down and put his callused hands in the water. Edgar was about raise his hands and drink when he was startled by a high, quiet voice.

  “This is my spot. You can’t play here.” Edgar spun around and saw a wet-haired, shirtless child of three or four standing in the middle of the channel a little way off. The boy was pushing a floating wooden toy back and forth in the water between his hands.

  “This is my spot,” the boy repeated, but kept his attention on the toy and didn’t look at Edgar. Behind the boy the channel curved to one side and out of sight. Edgar looked quickly the other way to get his bearing in case he needed to escape. He saw that the channel also curved not far ahead in the other direction and disappeared once more. He was in something of a wide pool with a slow current.

  “Where is your mother?” Edgar asked. He hadn’t drunk any of the water yet and his voice sounded harsh and full of air. The boy looked up.

  “She’s right there.” He pointed up around the corner. As if to answer Edgar’s question directly, the mother’s voice came next, unseen but close.

  “Don’t go past the pool, David.” It sounded like a command that had been made many times before.

  “Mommy’s washing,” said the boy. “This is my spot.”

  Edgar sensed the danger of his situation. The mother might come quickly around the corner and see a stranger—an invader from below—within snatching distance of her child. And yet he saw an opportunity he couldn’t let slip away. Edgar cupped some water in his hands and drank while he thought of what to say. His chest and head filled with energy.

  Turning to the boy, he said, “David, I’ll leave your spot if you can help me with something.”

  The boy was suddenly alert, thinking it was a game.

  “I’m looking for an older boy named Samuel—a boy about my age. Do you know where he lives?”

  David smiled and took hold of his wooden toy, no longer interested in letting it float between his hands.

  “Yes! I know him. He lives by the big house.”

  “Where by the big house?” asked Edgar.

  “Da-vid…” The woman around the corner sang the name as mothers often do.

  “I’m here, Mommy,” said David. Edgar was afraid the boy would mention his new friend, but he did not. He felt sure the mother would come around the corner at any moment.

  Edgar pressed the boy with a little more force in his voice: “David—where does Samuel live by the big house?”

  “Next to the kitchen,” he answered.

  “And how do I find the big house?”

  The boy pointed behind himself, toward the white wall and the white structure Edgar had seen from his hiding place in the grass. Edgar gulped more water and thanked the boy as he started to leave.

  “I’ll leave your spot now,” he said. “Can you keep a secret?”

  The boy was starting to like Edgar, and he nodded earnestly.

  “Don’t tell anyone you saw me, okay? I’ll come see you again in a day or two or three, but only if you’re quiet.”

  The boy nodded again. He went back to playing with the floating toy while Edgar disappeared into the tall yellow grass.

/>   Samuel was the only child who lived in the House of Power, and this afforded him a certain view of things. In the beginning, he was put there because his father was appointed to the board of elders and he was the only elder with a child. As a child among adults, Samuel was universally ignored, and he found early on that he could move about without much notice if he wanted to, especially at night. He hadn’t been very interested in what was going on in the main chamber for a long time, because it was a painful reminder of his father. But the humiliation he’d felt when delivering the toast to Lord Phineus and the visit from Edgar had set his mind on a different course. On the night after he’d met the boy from Tabletop, Samuel decided it was time to take a closer look around.

  There were a great many twists and turns in the House of Power, along with all sorts of stone formations behind which to hide. Some of the structures held trees, others surrounded rows of flowering plants, and still others were simply decorative stones in odd shapes and sizes. They were not items of a size that would hide an adult, but for a child they made excellent coverage when unexpected people came around a corner. It was this recurring architecture of halls and objects that made the House of Power such a perfect place for a small child to explore unseen.

  Night was coming on as Samuel made his way up the main stairs, managing to sidestep Horace in the shadows as the guard nodded off. He went down the dark hall to the door of the main chamber and listened but heard nothing. The door was too thick for Samuel to hear through, even if someone had been shouting behind it. Nearby was a stairway leading up to the bedchambers for Sir Emerik, Sir Philip, and Lord Phineus. Samuel crept up the steps until he reached a wide landing.

  Off to one side was a stone window where faint light crept in from outside, and Samuel went to it. The slightest sound might give him away, for he stood just over the chamber where he’d delivered the tea and toast for his mother. There was not a lot of movement on the grounds of the House of Power, but he could hear voices from the chamber below.

  “There is word from the grove. From Mr. Ratikan. It seems that our assumptions have been proven correct. His experimentation provided favorable results.” It was Sir Emerik.

  “Lord Phineus will want to know.” This time it was Sir Philip, who sounded pleased with the news. There was some discussion of who would share the information, and then Samuel suddenly heard the door to the chamber open. Footsteps approached on the stairs and Samuel’s heart raced as he realized whoever it was would be on the landing in no time at all. There was only a small leafy tree held within a stone pot behind which to hide, and Samuel dashed toward it as quickly as he could.

  He was down on his knees when Sir Philip and Sir Emerik both arrived on the landing, but he had not made it all the way to the little tree. Samuel stayed perfectly still and watched. Though the light was dim, he was out in the open, and he felt sure he would be seen at any moment.

  Sir Philip and Sir Emerik seemed to be in a rush as they turned to the left and rapped on Lord Phineus’s door. This gave Samuel the chance he needed, and in a flash he was behind the leaves of the small tree, hidden from view. Lord Phineus’s door opened.

  “Sorry to disturb you, Lord,” said Sir Emerik, always the one to take center stage if he could. “I have news from the grove, from Mr. Ratikan, and I am certain you will want to hear of it.”

  Lord Phineus put his hand up as if he wanted Sir Emerik to stop speaking, but Sir Emerik was not so easily silenced. “Shall we meet you in the chamber, after you’ve had a moment?”

  Lord Phineus stood aside and invited the men into his room.

  “There are ears all about the place. One cannot be too careful.”

  Lord Phineus peered down the hall and seemed to feel that something wasn’t quite right. He sniffed the air as the two men came in, then reluctantly shut the door. When the door closed, Samuel jumped out from behind the tree and ran down the stairs toward the kitchen. As he hurried past, he saw Horace was still slumped in a chair with his chin on his chest.

  When he arrived at the kitchen, his mother was absorbed in her work and couldn’t stop to visit with him. She was pulling hand-sized baguettes of bread out of a stone oven when she glanced over her shoulder and saw her son standing there.

  “Did you tire of reading already?”

  Samuel shrugged. He’d come to the kitchen instinctively because his mother usually made him feel safe, but now he was suddenly afraid his mother might make him deliver bread to the main chamber.

  “How about some bread?”

  Samuel’s mother pushed one of the warm baguettes across the table, and Samuel picked it up. With a quick word of thanks he headed for the door, determined to leave before his mother presented him with a night errand.

  The path from the kitchen to his room had two sharp turns through the courtyard garden. As he made his way, only two questions were on his mind: What sort of experiment had Mr. Ratikan performed, and why did Lord Phineus want to know about it?

  Samuel’s room was exactly twenty-five steps from the kitchen door. He knew this because he enjoyed taking precisely that many steps to go between the two whenever he made the trip. He counted the steps as he went, hugging the bread to his chest so the smell would rise to his face. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven—he reached the first curve and the grouping of trees and vines—eight, nine, ten—

  “Samuel—over here, Samuel,” whispered a voice from the garden.

  Samuel crouched down instinctively, frightened by the voice. It had been a perilous evening and his nerves were frayed. He gripped the bread tighter than he ought to have, and the crust crumbled onto his shirt.

  “Who’s there?”

  Edgar stood up high enough for Samuel to see him—but only for a moment—then he stooped back down low in the garden. “It’s me, Edgar.”

  “You’re days early!” said Samuel, suddenly aware of the risk of the situation. If Edgar were found in the Highlands, there was no telling what Lord Phineus would do.

  “Is there somewhere you can take me?” whispered Edgar. “A place where I can hide?”

  Samuel looked all around and, seeing no one, motioned Edgar out from behind the bushes and onto the pathway.

  “I’ll take you to my room—it’s just here, around the corner.”

  “What if your mother comes back?”

  “She works very late, and there’s a door between our adjoining rooms. It’s all right, Edgar. Come on!”

  The two of them walked quickly to the next corner on the path, where Samuel held Edgar back and peered around the bend. Nobody was there. Samuel picked up his count right where he’d left off—twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five—opened the door, and the two of them went inside.

  CHAPTER

  11

  DR. KINCAID’S REVELATION

  “We must be quiet,” said Samuel. “No one can know you’re here.”

  Edgar nodded as he peered into a room barely lit by the flicker of a small flame. The light sat on a table against the wall and cast a pale glow onto a large, open book. Samuel took a slender stick off the table and held it over the tiny flame. Walking around the room, he lit two more wicks, the first illuminating a bed with a round stool to one side, the second revealing a small pile of books sitting on a shelf. Samuel blew out the flame on the stick and waved his hand to disperse the smoke.

  “I can’t believe you’re here, Edgar. How did you find me?”

  Samuel was delighted to see his new friend, but he was harboring a fugitive from Tabletop, and logic told him it was a reckless thing to do. The two of them wouldn’t be able to remain hidden for long.

  “I’m sorry to come again so soon,” said Edgar. “I had no place else to go.” He told Samuel why he had to leave Tabletop, how he had come across the little boy named David, and then waited until dark to sneak into the courtyard.

  “But there’s only one gate to the House of Power, and it’s guarded. How did you manage to get in?”

  Edgar didn’t have to a
nswer. There was a towering wall all around the House of Power, and though it was flat and smooth, it was no match for Edgar.

  “You climbed over the wall!” said Samuel, startled once again by Edgar’s skill and boldness. “Nobody’s ever done that before.”

  Edgar wasn’t as impressed by his own accomplishments. “What have you got there?” he asked instead, finally overcome by his own hunger and curiosity. Samuel looked at his hand, which held the bread he’d forgotten about, the smell of which was growing stronger in the closed room.

  “Why, it’s bread,” said Samuel, holding it out to Edgar. “You must be starving.”

  Edgar had never seen such a thing, and when he took it in his hand, he wasn’t sure what to do with it. Was there something inside that might spill out if he took a bite?

  “Go on, eat it. I don’t need anything to eat. I’m not even hungry.”

  Edgar thought of the bitter green grass he’d eaten earlier in the day.

  “What does it taste like?”

  Samuel couldn’t believe his ears. Could it really be that Tabletop had no bread? He was beginning to wonder what Tabletop did have.

  “Trust me, Edgar. You’ll like it. It will fill you up.”

  Edgar held the baguette close to his nose and smelled it, then took a small bite. He had never tasted anything so good.

  “Wait here a moment,” said Samuel. “I’ll go and fetch some water and come right back.”

  Edgar ate all of the bread and choked it down with a dry throat before Samuel returned with the water. He drank the water in three big gulps and then burped louder than Samuel imagined anyone could. The two boys couldn’t help laughing, although Samuel was aware of the danger that careless noises might bring.

  “Don’t do that again,” said Samuel, trying his best to hold back a smile. “We really must try to keep quiet.”

 
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