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Gregor and the curse of.., p.15
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       Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods, p.15

         Part #3 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
 
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  "It could be many things. When the plague began. When the cure will be found. When the last warm-blood dies," said Nike dreamily.

  "'Remedy and wrong entwine, / And so they form a single vine,'" said Hamnet. "I suppose that refers to the plant that is the cure. What is it called again?"

  "Starshade," said Gregor. "It looks like this." He took a piece of charred vine from the edge of the fire and drew the plant on the stone as he remembered it from Neveeve's book.

  "'Remedy and wrong entwine...' if the remedy is the starshade, then what is the wrong?" asked Ripred.

  But no one could even venture a guess.

  So instead they ate and got ready for bed. Hamnet and Luxa helped Aurora back to the camp. The two injured bats greeted each other warmly and snuggled together to sleep.

  "It will be much comfort for Aurora to have another flier to sleep with," said Luxa. But Gregor wondered if this was the only reason they had moved to the camp. Luxa could probably use some human company, too.

  "Are you going with us to the Vineyard?" Gregor asked her.

  "You might have need of me," said Luxa.

  He thought about mentioning how dangerous it was to her, but he knew that wouldn't matter at all.

  Hamnet let them sleep a full eight hours. Then they had breakfast and prepared to travel the last leg of the trip to the Vineyard of Eyes. The two bats were secured on Frill, Boots was assigned her regular seat on Temp's back, and everyone else was to go on foot.

  "To the Vineyard of Eyes, then," said Hamnet, and Frill led the way into the jungle.

  Gregor tried to get Boots up on Temp's back but she was still enamored with her dance. She would take a couple of steps into the jungle and then say, "'Turn and turn and turn again,'" and run back in the opposite direction.

  "No, Boots, that way leads to Regalia," said Gregor. Back to Regalia where everybody was counting on them. He scooped up Boots and planted her on Temp's back. "Come on," he said. "The cure's this way."

  ***

  CHAPTER 21

  There was a small path, probably worn by the mice traveling from their nests to the spring, but it quickly became overgrown, and they were just wading their way through the jungle again. It was harder here. The vines grew more thickly so that, in places, they had to separate them with their hands to get through. Then the stems snapped closed behind them. At times, Gregor couldn't even see most of his fellow travelers. He stayed right on top of Temp and Boots, making sure they didn't get lost in the foliage.

  Hamnet assigned each of them a number, one through eleven, and made them sound off periodically. Boots loved this and never failed to shout out, "Nine!" with great enthusiasm. It was trickier for Temp, who had trouble remembering he was the number ten and also that it followed nine. Gregor knew math was not the roaches' strong suit; they had trouble with the simplest addition. Boots, who could now count up to twenty with just a few problems in the thirteen-fourteen area, kept jumping in to help Temp. "Temp, say 'Ten'! Temp, say 'Ten!'" she'd cry when he missed his number. Gregor hoped this wasn't embarrassing him, but if it were, he didn't show it.

  At one point during the sound off, Gregor realized Luxa had fallen back in line and was walking just ahead of them. "How's Aurora doing?" he asked.

  "Better, so much better, although she still has some pain," said Luxa. She waited until he had caught right up to her and asked in a puzzled voice, "Gregor...who is that boy? The one who speaks to the hisser?"

  "His name's Hazard. He's Hamnet's son. So, I guess that makes him your cousin," said Gregor.

  "How is that possible?" said Luxa with a frown. "His eyes are green."

  "Yeah, his mom was an Overlander. Hamnet met her somewhere out here. He hasn't talked much about it," said Gregor.

  "My cousin," said Luxa. She looked conflicted. Her experience with cousins had not always been happy.

  "I think he'll be a good one. Like Nerissa or Howard," said Gregor.

  "So, Nerissa is queen now?" asked Luxa.

  "Yeah, but you'll be queen again when we get back, right?" asked Gregor.

  "Oh, yes. I will not be relieved of this crown so easily. How fares Nerissa? Have they been dreadful to her?" asked Luxa.

  "She seems to be hanging in there. She stood up to Ripred and everybody in a meeting. You'd have been proud of her," said Gregor.

  "I am always proud of Nerissa," said Luxa. "If fools wish to belittle her, it does not affect my judgment of her gifts."

  "That goes double for me. You know, she's the only reason Ares and I are alive. She's the one who finally figured out what the Prophecy of Bane meant. Why it was good I didn't kill the Bane," said Gregor significantly.

  "Then tell me, Gregor, why it is good that the Bane lives?" said Luxa with a sigh.

  So Gregor took a deep breath and started back at the fight with the sea serpents where he had lost Luxa. He told her about sparing the Bane's life in the Labyrinth, leaving it with Ripred, the angry reaction back in Regalia and how Nerissa had saved his life by cracking the prophecy. He told her of Boots's return, and the months he'd spent waiting for word up in New York City. Then he explained everything he knew about the plague and the hardest part--the names of all who were stricken. He quickly moved on to the search for the cure, meeting Hamnet, and the treacherous trip through the jungle that landed him in a pit of quicksand. "And that's where you came in," he said. "So, what happened to you and Aurora?"

  Luxa's was a shorter story, but as loaded with trouble as Gregor's. During the battle with the sea serpents, she and Aurora had caught Boots and Temp and dove into a tunnel. Waves had soon blocked their way to their companions and they had floated for hours in the chilly water, clinging to Boots's and Temp's life jackets. Eventually, they had made their way into the Labyrinth and ran into Twitchtip, who was in the process of leading them to a safer spot when a dozen rats had attacked. Luxa had ordered Temp to run with Boots and held off the others long enough for him to get a good start. Then she had fled, following Twitchtip's directions. It took them two days to find a path out of the maze and into a network of tunnels that had led to the jungle, where almost immediately, Aurora had dislocated her wing in a fight with a giant tree snake. If the mice had not given them refuge then, they would not be alive.

  "Any idea what happened to Twitchtip?" he asked.

  "I do not know, Gregor. She was so weak from her injuries...I do not know," said Luxa.

  The dense foliage ended abruptly and they came out along the stone rim of a valley. What lay below them took Gregor's breath away. The valley was covered with vines, too, but these were more slender and graceful with delicate blossoms of every shade. A light, sweet scent filled the air, which was the coolest they had encountered since they'd entered the Arch of Tantalus. The relentless chatter of the jungle was behind them now, because over the valley was a hush.

  "Here lies the Vineyard of Eyes," hissed Frill.

  Gregor wondered why everyone dreaded it so. It was like a magnificent garden with those multicolored blossoms and that glorious smell and...then he remembered the plants that had taken Mange's life. Maybe here in the jungle, beauty was synonymous with danger. There was a smooth, wide stone path leading into the valley. The vines grew in a high arch above it, as if they'd been planted and pruned by an expert gardener.

  "Who made the path?" asked Gregor.

  "The Vineyard made the path itself. To invite weary travelers in," said Ripred.

  What? The Vineyard had made the path? Was this just a large-scale version of the plant that ate Mange? But instead of just one plant, a whole variety had worked out this enticing trap together? Suddenly, all the beauty became sinister, and Gregor did not want to enter the Vineyard at all.

  "Courage, boy," said Ripred, who could no doubt smell the fear in Gregor's sweat. "Others must have survived it and lived to tell the tale if your Doctor Neveeve has a record of it in her books. That means it can be done. And if it can be done, then we can do it. Hamnet, what do you suggest?"

  "Stay very cl
ose together. Walk in twos or even threes if possible. But avoid touching any plant. And under no circumstances, leave the path," said Hamnet.

  "Boots," said Gregor weakly and then cleared his throat and tried again. "Boots, you have to stay on the path. Like...like...you know how Red Riding Hood had to stay on the path?" he asked.

  "Because of wuff?" said Boots, her eyes lighting up.

  "Right, these plants have bad things like wolves in them, so you stay right here on the path, okay?" said Gregor.

  "You stay on the path, Temp!" said Boots, but then she immediately began to peer into the vines, clearly hoping for a glimpse of a "wuff." Gregor would just have to keep her right next to him.

  Frill and Hamnet led the party down the path with Hazard walking between them. Aurora and Nike, still secured to Frill's back, were completely vulnerable. Luxa covered them on the right and Lapblood on the left. Gregor came next, holding Boots's hand while she rode on Temp. Ripred, in the rear, walked alone.

  Quiet. It was so quiet. Gregor strained his ears as the last vivid clamor of the jungle died away. Then, for the first time, he heard the sounds of his companions, stepping, sniffing, sighing. Nike coughed, Frill gave a hiss of surprise when Ripred trod on her tail, Gregor's stomach rumbled with hunger. But the Vineyard of Eyes drank in their sounds and gave them nothing in return. It was very creepy. They had been walking for about five minutes when Gregor began to see them. The eyes. At first he mistook them for flowers or some of the enticing fruit that hung from the vines. But flowers didn't blink and fruit didn't roll around to follow your movements. Were they insects? Did the plants themselves have eyes? Was that possible? Gregor didn't know and didn't ask. He just kept one hand on Boots and one on the hilt of his sword and pretended not to notice them. Yeah, right.

  They made good time. The path continued to be smooth and straight, sloping gently downward. It was easy to travel but Gregor had the sense they were descending down the throat of some horrible beast. "Just waiting for the right moment to swallow us up," he thought. He tightened his hold on Boots's hand until she complained.

  Eventually, they came to a large clearing, shaped in a geometrically perfect circle. Across the path from which they had arrived, three smaller paths branched out from a single point, equal angles between them. Like they had been measured and drawn with the aid of a protractor. Gregor had never seen anything like this in the Underland. Sure, he'd run into plenty of paths that forked, but they were a variety of sizes and shapes and seemed to have formed naturally, by streams or rivers that had dried up long ago. The Vineyard of Eyes had been carefully designed and executed by someone. Or something.

  "Why don't they just attack us?" he blurted out, not even knowing who "they" were.

  "This part of the Vineyard must not be as hungry as others," said Hamnet. "Or perhaps they want our blood for a special purpose. To feed the young or heal an ill."

  "So, this place, it has a brain or something?" said Gregor.

  "Look at the paths, boy. Do you think they just happened by accident?" said Ripred. No, they hadn't. So, the answer must be "yes."

  Hamnet positioned a lantern directly in the center of the circle and they all gathered tightly around it while they ate. When they were done, Hamnet rose. "I am going to take Frill and scout the paths," he said.

  "Fine. The rest of us can take turns sleeping," said Ripred.

  "I'm going with you," said Hazard, jumping up and clinging to Hamnet's hand.

  "You will be safe here, Hazard," said Hamnet. "Ripred will look after you."

  But Hazard would not let his father and Frill leave without him. After it was clear he was determined to follow them on foot down the path, Hamnet gave in and took him along. They took the path that branched off to the left and soon they were out of sight.

  "Will they be all right?" Gregor asked Ripred.

  "Don't worry about Hamnet. He can look after himself," said Ripred. "Survived ten years out here without any help from the rest of us."

  "Why did he leave Regalia, Ripred?" said Luxa in a hushed voice. She rarely addressed the rat, so Gregor knew the question had been weighing on her.

  "They never told you? Not your mother? Or Vikus?" said Ripred.

  "No. Henry heard Hamnet had gone mad. But he could never find out the whole story, and Henry could find out almost anything," said Luxa.

  There was no sound except their breathing while Ripred considered this. Gregor looked into the Vineyard and saw the lantern light reflecting off numerous pairs of eyes. Blinking. Blinking. He wanted to scream at them to go away, but that would only frighten Boots, and he felt sure they wouldn't go anywhere.

  "You may as well know," said Ripred finally. "I expect Vikus is only waiting for you to be old enough to tell. But he would keep you young as long as possible. And then, it's hard for him to talk about Hamnet without weeping."

  "Then you tell me," said Luxa. "And Vikus and I will both be in your debt."

  "You in my debt, Your Highness? Well, that's an opportunity I can scarcely let pass," said Ripred. He slouched over on his side and stared into the lantern's flame. "Now where to begin?...You see, the thing is...the thing you have to understand is that the humans and the rats were not always so consumed with hatred for each other. Or at least, the hatred has ebbed and flowed, so that there have been periods when one could hope for a genuine peace. These times coincided with both the rats and the humans having leaders that were willing to place a higher priority on harmony than gain. Several hundred years ago, they say, was such a time."

  Boots nudged her way onto Gregor's lap, and he wrapped his arms around her. She gave a big yawn and leaned her head against his chest.

  "As a token of goodwill, the humans gave a gift to the rats. A place the bats had named the Garden of the Hesperides. Sandwich's own people had planted the garden soon after they had arrived in the Underland. There was a small plain that flooded each year when the river was high. The humans built a dike so that the plain would no longer flood, and when it dried, the land was very fertile. They planted apple trees. They were small by Overland standards, but sturdy and able to grow with just the light from the river. There were sluice gates along the dike that could be opened and shut to provide water. The trees flourished and soon their branches were heavy with golden apples."

  "A is for apple," murmured Boots.

  "For the rats, it was a rare gift indeed. Unlike the humans, we can't grow crops. But the trees required little care and produced fruit almost continually. When I was a pup, I remember, it was a great treat to go to the garden," said Ripred, "to eat the apples, to sleep in the caves surrounding it, which smelled as sweet as the fruit."

  "Yes," whispered Lapblood sadly. "Everyone loved the garden."

  "I have never even heard of the Garden of the Hesperides," said Luxa suspiciously.

  "No, because if you had heard of it, you would also have heard the story of why your uncle left. Which I will tell you now," said Ripred. "Ten or so years ago was not one of those fortunate times. While your father was a decent enough king in some respects, Your Highness, he was too rigid in others. And, of course, King Gorger was a bloodthirsty monster from the get-go."

  "The same King Gorger..." Gregor began.

  "Yes, the same King Gorger who fell to his death on your first visit, Gregor. Anyway, the humans decided they wanted the garden back. Solovet sent an army under Hamnet's command to run out the rats. Hamnet, at the time, was hands down the best warrior among the humans. Everyone assumed he would take control of the army after his mother, since he seemed just like her. But as it turned out, he was as much like Vikus as he was like Solovet. And so he was doomed."

  Gregor began to get a sick feeling in his stomach. He had an impulse to tell Ripred to stop. He was not sure he wanted to hear the rest of the story. But Luxa did. And it was about her uncle.

  "Under Hamnet, the humans and their fliers launched a surprise attack. The rats, most of whom were playing in the garden with their pups, were thrown into chaos
. But they quickly regrouped, herded the pups into the surrounding caves, and turned to do battle. They fought so viciously that the tide began to turn in their favor. But Hamnet had a backup plan provided by his mother. If the rats should prove too strong, he was to open the sluice gates and flood the field. Then the rats would have to swim, and the humans on fliers would have a great advantage. So, Hamnet opened the gates."

  In the pause that followed, Gregor remembered Hamnet's words to Vikus: "I do no harm. I do no more harm." He knew he was about to find out what that harm had been.

  "The river was high, the dike was centuries old. As the water burst through the sluice gates, the surrounding mortar and stone crumbled and the whole dike gave way -- not merely flooding the plain, but reclaiming it under twenty feet of water. Hundreds of rats were drowned in the deluge, and many humans and fliers were caught as well. But the carnage didn't end there. Having filled the plain, the water rushed into the cave entrances, drowning the pups that had been hidden there for safety. You could hear their shrieks for miles around," said Ripred.

  "Miles around," Lapblood softly echoed. "Miles around."

  "What did Hamnet do?" Luxa asked.

  "He began a desperate effort to rescue the drowning, human, rat, bat, whatever, but it was useless. His own flier, his bond, was dragged into the water by two rats trying to save themselves, and she never resurfaced. Hamnet was pulled out by Mareth, who had to knock him senseless in order to keep him from diving back into what was by this time a lake of corpses," said Ripred. "When Hamnet regained consciousness in Regalia, he was, for all practical purposes, mad. For days, he recognized no one and spoke in strange, garbled sentences. Then his reason returned and he stopped speaking entirely. A few nights later he fled Regalia. The last person who saw him must have been Nerissa, who was just as unstable as a child as she is now, I might add. But she never mentioned it. A year after his disappearance he was pronounced dead and all efforts to locate him ceased," said Ripred. "And that is the story of your Uncle Hamnet."

  "What happened to the garden?" asked Aurora.

  "It lies underwater. And those golden apple trees won't grow anywhere else in the Underland," said Ripred. "So they were lost as well."

  For a while, all Gregor could hear was the occasional crackle of the lantern and Boots's soft snoring as she slept on his chest. Then a strained voice came from the path on the left. "Telling tales out of school again, Ripred?" Gregor didn't know how long Hamnet had been sitting there on Frill, holding his sleeping son. Long enough, though.

 
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