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Gregor and the curse of.., p.16
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       Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods, p.16

         Part #3 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
 
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  "You know my theory on that, Hamnet. The more tales told, the less chance of repeating them," said Ripred. "Maybe it will help your niece out one day."

  Luxa and Hamnet exchanged a look. "Maybe," said Hamnet. "Depending on whose ears she inherited."

  "Any luck out there?" asked Ripred.

  "I think so," said Hamnet. He held up a handful of plants. The roots still dangled from the stems. Above his clenched fist was a cluster of star-shaped leaves.

  ***

  CHAPTER 22

  "Starshade," said Ripred. "You found it."

  "You found it?" Gregor started to jump up, forgetting Boots was asleep on his lap. He set her on the ground and hurried to Hamnet. "You found the cure?"

  "It fits your description," said Hamnet. He settled Hazard on Frill's back and slid down the lizard's tail. They all gathered around him.

  "What do you think, boy? Does it look like the picture in the book?" Ripred asked Gregor.

  "Exactly!" said Gregor excitedly. They had found the cure! Finally, something was going right! He plucked a leaf from the plant and took a deep sniff. The clean, refreshing scent made his nose tingle. "Mmm, smells like lemons. This must be it. It smells...like it could heal you. Where is it? Can we go get it now? And then get back to Regalia and --"

  "Slow down, Gregor. I know we are all eager to obtain the cure. But first things first. We must sleep. Frill will keep watch. And then we will begin," said Hamnet.

  Gregor lay down next to Boots. He was tired, but keyed up, too. He held the starshade leaf in his palm and let the light dance over it. In his hand was life for his mom, for Ares, for all of the Underland. He pressed the leaf against his nose, and comforted by its lemony essence, closed his eyes.

  The next thing he knew, Hamnet was shaking him awake. They ate some leftover fish and a few plums. But when they started to get in their previous formation, Hamnet stopped them. "I did not tell any of you save Ripred this last night because I did not want to disturb your slumber, but this final leg of the journey will be treacherous. The field is nearby, but to reach it we must traverse a very dangerous path. As a group, we will need to move with all possible speed."

  "I've designed a formation that should give us the highest rate of survival," said Ripred. "Hamnet will show you. Do exactly as he says." Hamnet left Frill at the front of the line with the two bats and Hazard on her back. He instructed Temp to crawl beneath Frill's back legs. Flanking the lizard to the right was Ripred, with Boots and Gregor riding on his back. Luxa was to travel on Lapblood on the left. Hamnet was to run at the back.

  "I can travel fast enough on my own two legs," said Luxa. She clearly didn't want to ride Lapblood.

  "No, Luxa, you cannot," said Hamnet. "And trust me when I say you will be grateful for Lapblood's speed."

  Luxa reluctantly settled herself on Lapblood and reached up to stroke Aurora's fur. Gregor placed Boots up by Ripred's shoulder blades and sat behind her. He had to keep his knees slightly bent so his feet wouldn't scrape the ground.

  "We ride on here?" Boots asked him, puzzled.

  "Just for a little way, Boots. Then you can go back on Temp," said Gregor.

  Boots crawled up on Ripred's neck and poked him on the top of the head with one finger. " R is for rat," she said.

  "Yes, and B is for bite," said Ripred in a singsong voice. "Be careful the rat doesn't bite your fingers!" He snapped his teeth together for emphasis.

  "Oh!" Boots quickly scooted back against Gregor and held her hands close to her chest.

  "Was that really necessary?" said Gregor.

  "Absolutely. You want her going up and trying to pet rats? Not in this day and age," said Ripred.

  Ripred, as usual, had a point. In general, Gregor did not want Boots petting rats. Most of them would kill her in a second. But then...if the humans and rats taught their babies from birth to fear each other...how was anything ever going to get better? He had a feeling this was a much bigger question to answer than he had time for at the moment, so he just wrapped his arms around Boots and said nothing.

  Everyone was in place. "We will only travel a short while when I will give the command to run. At that point, do not stop until you have reached the field of starshade," Hamnet said. "Let us go."

  This path was narrower although similar-looking to the one that had brought them this far. But as they turned a corner, Gregor saw a long corridor that was so lovely it looked unreal. The vines were covered with a million tiny silvery-white blossoms that seemed to sparkle in the lantern light. There was a soft, tinkling sound of bells. It was like entering the pathway to some magical fairyland. And the smell...oh, the smell of the flowers made him dizzy with happiness.

  "Run!" he heard Hamnet shout.

  Ripred sprang forward with such power that Gregor almost lost his seat and had to fling himself forward across Boots and grab hold of the rat's ears to hang on. Boots gave a squeal of protest, since she was pretty much flattened into Ripred's neck, but Gregor didn't dare let go.

  The scent of the flowers was making it hard to hold on, though. He could feel his mind beginning to get cloudy and for no apparent reason, he started grinning.

  "Hang on, Overlander!" Ripred snarled.

  It was the funniest thing Gregor had ever heard, and now he was laughing. He saw the bewitching vines begin to shoot out at them, and he wanted to reach out his hands to meet them. Just then, Frill caught his attention by rearing up on her hind legs and breaking into a sprint. The sight of the big lizard bicycling along on those big legs made him laugh so hard that tears began to stream down his face.

  Then Gregor could see a green field....That must be the starshade....What a dumb name for a plant since there were no stars down here or shade, either, since there was no sun. Which was a star. Since the star was a sun...No, the sun was starshade....No..."Maybe they should call it 'Never-seen-a-star-shade!'" Gregor yelled. The idea was so hilarious that he lost his grip on Ripred's back and fell off onto the path. The plants...the pretty plants...wove around his arms and fingers....He had never seen anything so amazing in his life!

  Something yanked him from behind and he was being pulled back and forth because his new friends, the silvery-flowered vines, did not want him to leave so soon. They bit deeply into his arms before they finally snapped. "Bye!" Gregor called as he was dragged away. "Nice knowing you!"

  Then he was lying in a cool, green, lemony world, still chuckling about the "Never-seen-a-star-shade" joke when he realized there was nothing funny about it. Alarm shot through him and he sat up quickly. The group was strung out along a large rectangular field covered in starshade. Boots was curled up in the leaves next to him giggling about her thumbs. Nike was hiccuping, which had Luxa and Hazard in stitches. Aurora, who apparently could fly again, was making lazy loops in the air. Most of his other fellow travelers seemed disoriented, too. Ripred and Hamnet were both taking deep breaths of the starshade, so Gregor did the same. His head began to clear almost immediately.

  "What happened back there?" he asked.

  "Those flowers put out a scent that gives a feeling of great happiness and well-being," said Hamnet. "And then, my guess is, they drag you into the Vineyard and dismember you."

  "Whoa! You might have given us a heads-up on that one!" said Gregor.

  "We were afraid you would try to fight them," said Hamnet. "That would have guaranteed your destruction."

  "We could have fought them," said Luxa, but then Nike hiccuped again and she fell over, laughing.

  "Oh, please," said Ripred rolling his eyes. "As it was, Hamnet and I had to drag half of you out of there, or don't you remember that part, Your Highness?"

  Gregor could see the confusion on Luxa's face and guessed that part of the ride was as much a blur for her as it was for him.

  "It affects the smallest the fastest," said Hamnet. "Luckily, Frill and I had Hazard with us last night. He began to babble almost as soon as we encountered the silver flowers. It warned us what we were up against." He wrapped his arm
around Hazard and gave him a squeeze.

  "Are we going to pick the leaves now?" asked Hazard. "Can I help?"

  "Yes, we can all help," said Hamnet. "The sooner we can harvest these plants the better."

  But before they started, Hamnet insisted that everyone eat a handful of the starshade leaves.

  "Why do we need it?" asked Gregor. "None of us has the plague."

  "But we are all no doubt being exposed to it. 'In the cradle lies the cure,'" said Hamnet. "That means the plague breeds here in the Vineyard. I do not know exactly where or how. All of us have scrapes and wounds. Your feet, Gregor. These cuts from the vines." Hamnet turned Gregor's arm around and revealed a crisscrossing pattern of marks where the vines had ensnared his arms. "If the plague germ floats in the air or grows on the plants or sleeps dormant in this earth where we stand, be sure it will make its way into your blood as well."

  "Boots!" said Gregor. "Come on, we have to eat this stuff!" He stuffed a wad of leaves in his mouth and chewed. They weren't bad, actually. Sort of like lemon and mint and tea all in one. Boots resisted eating the leaves, since she was not big on greens, until Hamnet made it into a game of who could eat a leaf the fastest. Hazard and Temp played with her and had the sense to let her win almost every time, so she soon had a fair number of leaves inside her.

  The starshade was easy to pull from the thin layer of soil in which it grew, but no one could think of the best way to package it for the trip home. The plants were only about eighteen inches tall, so they were not long enough for tying around bundles of the stuff. Then Gregor remembered the duct tape and took it from his pack. "Here, this will work!" He pulled out a strip of the tape to show them. By cutting the wide tape into thin strips, they could secure a really big haul.

  "This is most excellent," said Hamnet. "Thank you."

  "Don't thank me, thank Mareth," said Gregor, and then caught himself. Now that they all knew about the Garden of the Hesperides and Mareth saving Hamnet, somehow he felt awkward mentioning the name. "Sorry," he mumbled.

  "Why?" asked Hamnet. "Mareth is one of the few people I do not mind being in debt to."

  "Yeah," said Gregor. "He's a good guy."

  "Come, let us begin the harvest," said Hamnet.

  Initially, everyone gathered the starshade from the field, but it soon became apparent that the humans would be most useful taping bundles of the leaves together. None of the other creatures had the hands to do it. Boots and Hazard really weren't much help, either, so they went back to picking plants. That is, Hazard did, while Boots sang "The Alphabet Song", then chanted "'Turn and turn and turn again'" while she did her spinning dance until she fell over with dizziness. Occasionally, she presented them with a few leaves, too. Aurora and Nike, who, with their injuries, were also fairly limited in what they could do, made sure she stayed safely in the field. When she began to get too interested in the jungle again, Gregor dug around in his backpack and pulled out her ball and the top Dulcet had packed for her. He also gave her the hand mirror Nerissa had given him -- Boots was very fond of making faces at herself.

  Gregor ended up working mainly with Luxa, cutting strips of tape and wrapping up bundles of starshade. Hamnet gathered the bundles and began to build them into a haystack of sorts. When he was out of earshot, Gregor turned to Luxa. "So, that was some story Ripred told us about Hamnet."

  "Yes, it explains a great deal about why he left," said Luxa. "He was mad. But it does not explain why he did not come back to Regalia when his senses returned."

  "Because they would have made him fight again, Luxa," said Gregor. "And he couldn't stand killing anymore."

  "There is no great joy in killing for any of us," said Luxa. "We do it to survive."

  "So, what are you saying? You think he's a coward?" said Gregor.

  "Not a coward in that he is afraid to die. But I think it is easier for him to live here in the jungle, than return and face his true life," said Luxa.

  Gregor thought about it. First of all, living in the jungle was no picnic. And Hamnet had left everyone he loved behind. He couldn't have known he would meet an Overlander woman and have Hazard. He probably didn't think he would even live. He had given up everything, his home, his loved ones, his life, because he felt so strongly that what he did for Regalia was wrong.

  "I don't know, Luxa. I think he made a pretty brave choice. And I think in his mind it was the only one he could have made," said Gregor.

  "Perhaps. I do not know." Luxa gave her head a shake. "But would you have abandoned your family, Gregor?"

  "That's different. My family doesn't even allow hitting," said Gregor. "Your family's always in a war."

  "So is yours, now," said Luxa and ripped off a piece of duct tape with her teeth.

  Hamnet had assembled all the available bundles in the haystack, so he came to help them tape up some more. Luxa and Hamnet avoided speaking much to each other. It was too bad, really, since Gregor actually liked them both and they were related and all. He wasn't exactly sure how to get them to talk, but he gave it a try.

  "Man, you two sure look alike," he said. "You even smile the same."

  Luxa and Hamnet glanced at each other warily but said nothing.

  "So, Luxa must look just like her mom did, huh? Ripred said she was the spitting image of your twin," Gregor continued.

  It was more of a question, so Hamnet had to answer. "It is remarkable how much she resembles Judith. Even as a baby --" He broke off.

  "Oh, yeah, you must have still been around when Luxa was a baby," said Gregor.

  "Yes, we were good friends then, Luxa and I. I took her on her first flier ride outside the city," said Hamnet.

  "To the beach with the crystals," said Luxa softly.

  Hamnet looked at her in surprise. "You remember that? You could not have been more than two years."

  "Just bits and pieces. I still have a chunk of crystal. It is blue," said Luxa.

  "And shaped like a fish," said Hamnet. "I remember." Suddenly, his eyes filled with tears. "Of everything I left behind in Regalia, Luxa, you were my greatest regret. You and your mother."

  "You could have come and seen us," said Luxa and her voice sounded very young.

  "No. I could never have left twice. You know how Solovet works. She would have had me leading an army again in no time," said Hamnet.

  "She could not have forced you," said Luxa.

  "Bet she could have," muttered Gregor. Solovet would have found a way to make her son fight again. Guilt. Shame. Duty. Something.

  "I could not do that again," said Hamnet. "Not after...I still dream of it every night....The voices crying out for me to save them....And what did it solve? That battle at the garden? Nothing. It solved nothing at all. When it was over, the humans and gnawers hated one another more than ever. The Underland only became a more dangerous place."

  There was a long pause in the conversation before Gregor spoke up again.

  "So, don't you ever fight now? I mean, what if something attacks you or Hazard?" he asked.

  "I do fight on occasion, but only as a last resort," said Hamnet. "It is a method of survival I have learned from Frill. It turns out there are many alternatives to violence if you make an effort to develop them."

  "Like what?" asked Gregor.

  "Well, say that Frill is in danger. Her first reaction is to make herself unseen. Camouflage," said Hamnet.

  Gregor remembered the first time he'd seen Frill. He wouldn't have noticed her if she hadn't opened her mouth to catch Boots's ball. "Oh, right. So, what if that doesn't work?"

  "Then she attempts to scare off whoever is threatening her. She hisses and opens her ruff, which makes her look much larger and more frightening," said Hamnet.

  "Didn't work on Boots." Gregor laughed.

  "No, Boots tried to frighten her right back." Hamnet grinned. "If Boots had been a true threat, Frill would have begun to lash her tail on the ground."

  "And if something still tries to attack?" asked Gregor.

  "She r
uns. Very fast, too, once she gets up on those hind legs. She runs to a place where the vines will support her weight and climbs high above her attacker," said Hamnet.

  "But if there are no vines, and she is cornered, and something is trying to kill her?" said Luxa.

  "Then she fights. She has very wicked teeth if she chooses to use them. But it is always her last choice, as opposed to the Regalians, who seem to conclude it is their only option almost immediately," said Hamnet. "Living out here, I have found that many creatures would prefer not to fight. But if your first instinct is to reach for your sword, you will never discover that." Gregor did not know if Hamnet had convinced Luxa he'd done the right thing, but at least she seemed to be considering it.

  The field of starshade was about half harvested. They had a huge pile of the plants now. With every bundle he taped, Gregor could feel his heart grow lighter. They had the cure. All they had to do now was get it back to Regalia and into the victims. His mom would get better, and they could all go home. And if she still wanted to move to Virginia then, Gregor would be the first one packed.

  For a few minutes he let his mind wander to his dad's family's farm in Virginia. It was pretty nice there, even if it was kind of far away from, well, other people and buildings and stuff. He loved New York City, he would miss his friends, but if it meant his family didn't have to spend every minute afraid, it would be more than worth it.

  He was just thinking about how maybe he might learn to ride a horse when he saw Aurora's head snap up. Nike's went up, too. And suddenly, Ripred and Lapblood had their noses in the air. They were all facing the far end of the field.

  "What? What is it?" said Gregor. Usually, the bats reacted to rats, but the rats were reacting as if something dangerous were around, too. "Is it some kind of plant?" He still felt shaky from the silvery flowers.

  "No!" snarled Ripred. "How did they even get in here?"

  "They ate their way in, I imagine," said Nike. Her wings were beating open and shut in apprehension.

 
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