ONCE UPON A TIME, two girls were walking home from school. They were in the ninth grade. One of the girls' names was Jennifer. She is, more or less, the star of this story. She was of medium height, thin, with long black hair that wisped around her shoulders and found its way into her mouth at every opportunity. Her eyes were silver (a bit odd, but she liked them very much). It was often said (though not to her face) that she was awfully cute, and that someone ought to kiss her. This was quite true.
The other girl's name was Jalia. That's French, and people often had a difficult time spelling it, a fact which she derived endless amusement from. She was not as short or thin as Jennifer, but she was just as pretty in her own way. Her hair was brown, and reached to just past her shoulders. Her eyes were green. It had never been said by anyone that she was cute and ought to be kissed, although it was thought quite often enough.
Jennifer and Jalia were best friends. They lived on opposite sides of the same street, and spent nearly all their time together. Jennifer lived on the third floor of a large apartment building with her parents, who were quite well off. She had her own bedroom, and usually spending money. Jalia lived in a large house with her aunt and a housekeeper, as her parents had died when she was very young. She had an entire floor to herself, but was very lonely. She had given Jennifer her very own room to stay in, but it was never used (Jennifer slept in Jalia's bedroom whenever she stayed over, as they were, after all, best friends).
On this day, a Tuesday in April, the two had had quite an exhausting day at school. Jennifer had suffered through three tests, on which she had done quite well, but she worried about failing nonetheless. Also, she forgot her lunch that morning, and was ravenous after eight hours. Jalia had been sick, but could not go home, as her aunt was gone on a trip and the housekeeper was out on errands the entire day. She spent the entire day on the school nurse's couch, feeling rather miserable.
The route they normally took to reach home from school took them down a long hill along a narrow street with brick office buildings rising high on each side, then through an old park and out onto a quiet drive that led directly onto their street. At the bottom of the hill there was an intersection, and around this intersection were several small shops. One of these was a druggist's shop, and Jalia wanted to stop there for a moment. "I should really go to the bathroom, and have a drink of water. I still feel pretty awful," she explained.
Jennifer nodded. The boy working behind the counter was head over heels about Jalia. She was certain Jalia would feel much better after a few minutes, but held back from saying so. Jalia always seemed to feel better after getting attention from boys. Silly, Jennifer thought, but she knew she would act the same way soon enough. She took Jalia's books and held them while she went inside.
Several cars drove by, and one truck, shaking windows as it went. Jennifer shifted her body on the jutting windowsill, and let her books and Jalia's slide from her lap onto the sidewalk. Time passed. More cars drove by. The bells in a church tower nearby rang the hour, four times. Jennifer stood up and walked to the corner and back, and looked in the window. No Jalia. She sat down again.
Jennifer twisted her head to the side, looking. Something had blurred across her vision, but nothing was there except for the signpost at the corner. Odd, she thought, signposts don't normally move. She bent down to pick up her and Jalia's books, and it happened again. Just out of the corner of her eye, like someone was sneaking up on her. She whipped her head up and around, but there was nothing there. She pulled back her hair, which had worked its way into her mouth, and thought for a moment, but could think of nothing to explain it, unless she was going blind or insane, or both. Neither sounded particularly attractive.
And then, it happened again, while she was watching. A patch of air went all fuzzy, the way you see around extreme heat, and then cleared. She sat for a moment, but nothing more happened.
She put the books back down on the sidewalk in a neat pile, and walked to the corner again. The air had changed. It was warm, and smelled vaguely of flowers, instead of the brick and auto exhaust it had before. Everything was silent, and very still. Jennifer closed her eyes, and the smells intensified, like she was in the country in August. An odd buzzing sounded quite suddenly in her ears, but before she could identify it, there was a very bright flash of light, and Jennifer found herself abruptly unconscious.
WHEN JENNIFER CAME TO, she was laying face-down in sand. For quite a long time, this was all she could tell, as most of the joints in her body were too sore for her to want to try and move. After growing tired of this, she raised herself up on one arm, ignoring the darting little bursts of pain, and looked around.
She was in a small shallow cave opening upon what appeared to be an ocean. This was only a guess on her part, as she had never actually seen one before. But as the water continued out past the horizon, she felt rather sure of that guess. The ceiling of the cave rose high, at least forty feet, before curving out of sight.
She lay on a narrow wisp of a beach at the back of the cave, roughly five feet from both the waterline and the rough stone. The water was very clear. It filled almost the entire cave, except for a short rise near the single water-level entrance to the cave--there were several entrances spread across the far wall, but all save one of them were somewhat higher up--and the comparatively long stretch where she was. It was somewhere around noon, she estimated from the angle of the sun's rays through the high entrances. And finally, she was very hungry.
Now, this is not the sort of situation people have come to expect in their normal day-to-day life. One might even go so far as to say it was quite unusual. Jennifer however--although very curious--did not panic, as many others would have done. The first thing she did was to stand up and walk around, as to stretch out her body to relieve a bit of the pain she was in. She reasoned that she must have been laying there for some time. As she walked back and forth along the shore, she looked around a bit more closely. One thing she noticed was that the water, though clear, became very deep rather quickly. Another was a small fountain of water from the wall of the cave onto the sand, where it formed a small enclosed pool. She made her way to this and took several long draughts before standing back up, thankfully refreshed.
The sand was smooth and unmarred by footsteps, except for where she had lain, stood up, and walked slightly less than half the length of the cave, a little less than thirty feet. There were, she suddenly realized, no traces of her arrival. This was rather an interesting little puzzle. Jennifer quickly ruled out the possibility that she had fallen, as there was no trace in the gently sloping ceiling of any door or hole through which she could have come. Also rather quickly, she noticed the level of barnacles and seaweed along the far edge of the cave--toward the sea, away from the sunlight--rose to more than two feet above the highest point the sand reached on her side. This ruined her other idea, that she had carried there and left; for the rising tide to have erased any traces of that, she would have had to have slept through the whole of the high tide, and would surely have drowned first. Quite strange.
She walked down to the water's edge and looked in. Yes, it was deep, sinking to what appeared to be at least sixty feet along the far wall. It was also extremely calm, and uncluttered by such things as fish and shells, although the walls of the cave underwater were draped with seaweed and such things. The water outside seemed relatively calm as well, a difference from what she had expected from an ocean. It was this calm that gave her the idea of swimming out of the cave, as she would surely never otherwise have tried it, being normally quite wary of such things. And, she reasoned, her clothes would dry quickly in the hot sun, so she would not need to worry about catching a cold.
After returning to the pool and taking another long drink, both because she remained very thirsty and because she did not know what she could expect to find outside, she returned to the water's edge and took her shoes off, as she had always been told that one should take their shoes off before swimming.
Before she could step into the water, however, the something happened that had happened before, and didn't vanish. She started and turned abruptly, falling full into the water as she did so, only catching a brief glimpse of a tiny scantily-clad female looking at her with an odd expression, before her surprised body sank below the surface of the astonishingly cold water.
JENNIFER SANK QUICKLY FOR a moment, before her body caught back up with her mind and began struggling for the surface. The water was very clear and did not sting her eyes. Her ineffectual thrashing about caught the attention of several small fish drifting by, who gave her a vaguely annoyed look. Realizing that she was in fact getting mostly nowhere, as well as running rapidly out of breath, Jennifer began to panic for the first time since she had found herself in the cave.
At just that instant, however, strong hands caught her arms and stilled them. Sensibly, she stopped moving as well as she could, reasoning that cooperating with help was the wise thing to do. A swirl of black hair filled her vision, and then lips were pressing against hers, and she was breathing again, but only for A moment, and then the arms were pulling her up, back up toward the surface. What seemed a long time passed before Jennifer's head burst back into the air and she was gasping with the relief of it, only then realizing how far she had sunk. Her rescuer slipped an arm around her, and Jennifer was laying back on the warm sand, coughing weakly.
Soon curiosity got the better of her, and Jennifer sat up. She was quite thoroughly soaked, but not yet shivering cold. Her nipples were painfully hard. Her hair formed sharp spikes and made various attempts to blind her, but never quite could. She brushed it back over her shoulders and, perhaps rudely, stared at her saviour.
At the edge of the water crouched a vaguely feral/vaguely human creature (Jennifer could not say with certainty one way or the other), staring at her as intently as she stared at it. Slowly, Jennifer began to pick out human features from within the wet tangled black mat, features that she thought would be very pretty under different circumstances. But, and this is the bit that unnerved her, there was also a pair of ears that most definitely belonged on a cat and not a human, poking out through the hair on either side of its head. The thing's fingers, as well, were cat-like, ending in huge wide nails with deadly- looking points. Jennifer sweated appropriately to herself, and sat very very very still.
Finally, after what seemed ages, and could well have been, it spoke. "Are you going to sit there forever, or must I clean you off as well?" Jennifer nearly wet herself with shock. It could speak! The creature, noticing her discomfort, gave off an annoying little giggle. "I did save your life, you know. Suppose knowing all that effort wasn't for naught, is a bit much to ask, hmm?" With that, she (Jennifer had noticed the very human-like swells under the thing's arms, by that point) gave her head a vigorous shaking, spraying water in all directions and redousing Jennifer as well.
Jennifer remembered her manners and her voice at roughly the same instant. "I.... Thank you! But--who are you?" Her brain had yet to catch up with the rest of her.
The creature smiled for the first time. It was a very pretty smile, as Jennifer had guessed it would be. "I am Jonnalyhn, of course. But, time for introductions is not now. You are wet, surely not comfortable? Clean now, speak later, hmm, yes?"
Jonnalyhn stood up, gave herself another quick shaking-off, and crossed the six-odd feet to where Jennifer sat in one bound. Jennifer tried not to stare, and failed. Jonnalyhn bent to help her up. "We leave cave first, no? The sun will do the both of us good, I think."
Jennifer was in full agreement. As she stood, though, she suddenly remembered what she had seen before. "There was something here! A little person, or," Jennifer tried to remember, "well, something. It scared me, and I fell in, and...." She trailed off. "I don't know. Maybe I'm just seeing things."
Jonnalyhn broadened her smile. "And you are new here, now I see. Means to introduce now, hmm, but outside to dry off and eat perhaps first?" Jennifer nodded. She had, by this point, had quite enough of the cave and pool. Jonnalyhn seemed to know everything about this place, and even better, was quite sure of what she was doing. Jennifer was envious, in a way, for a brief instant; then Jonnalyhn had all in one motion bent to retrieve Jennifer's shoes, wrapped one of her arms tightly about Jennifer's waist, knelt, and sprung sideways across the water to the wall of the cave. Jennifer's head spun in vicious little circles. In quick little bursts, clinging to the rough stone of the walls between with her other hand and both feet, the toes of which were equipped with the same claw-like growths as her fingers, Jonnalyhn had traversed the edge of the cave and they were standing in one of the high window-like breaks in the outer wall.
After Jennifer's head cleared, she looked out from her new vantage over the land outside the cave. She could now see that the wall was a small break in the face of a very large cliff. Some eight feet below her, the sea came up almost but not quite to the edge of the cliff, breaking at the rise of a short beach which was terminated by a loose pile of rough stones at the wall. The beach came to an end a short distance to her right, at the water-level entrance to the cave, and stretched away out of sight behind the curve of the cliff to her left. Above, the cliff rose some unknown distance--Jennifer could not crane her neck far out enough to see any upper end, and didn't entirely care to try.
Then again, Jonnalyhn's arm was firmly around her, and they hung suspended together in the air for just an instant before landing gently on the sand. The sun beat a luxurious path onto Jennifer, who stood unmoving for long moments, enjoying her newly-won freedom. She then turned to Jonnalyhn, who stood regarding her with an amused look on her face.
"No more carrying," the creature announced, "We walk now. Confusion, I am sure, but much to be made clear in A little while. Come?" She turned to indicate the length of the beach stretching far out of sight with a flip of her hand. Jennifer decided that Jonnalyhn was the only help she was likely to get, agreed, and the two set off at a walk away from the cave, Jennifer taking long strides to keep up with Jonnalyhn's quick pace.
THERE WAS A LOVELY meadow stretching from the ridge of a hill far back down to the ocean, covered with a firm but gentle sod, which in its turn was covered with a pleasant sort of grass, the kind that encourages going about barefoot. At the water's edge, warmed comfortably by the afternoon sun, lay a beach of clean white sand, speckled with shells of all sorts. A stand of young oak clustered about a smallish mound of earth set just back from the beach, and it was for this that Jonnalyhn seemed bound. At her side, Jennifer was constantly looking around her with an amazed expression on her face.
As their walk had worn on and the cliff gradually receded and shrank, the landscape had become more and more beautiful, but this was by far the most wonderful thing she had yet seen. It far surpassed anything she had ever seen at home, which even now seemed but a memory.
The trees overhead cast a relaxed shade about, and the feeling was catching. It occurred to Jennifer that they must have been walking for quite a long time (which she had not noticed before only because she was so enraptured by the countryside), and that she should by rights be rather hungry, though in fact she was not. Another curiosity to be stored away, she noted to herself. As if catching the thought, Jonnalyhn stopped short, twirled about, and sank to the ground. Jennifer gave her a perplexed look, something she was becoming quite adept at. "Sit," said Jonnalyhn, helpfully indicating the ground. Jennifer did, continuing to wonder why.
She continued to wonder as Jonnalyhn determinedly picked up an acorn and shelled it with the twist of one claw, offering it to Jennifer (who politely declined), then noisily devouring the contents herself. This went on for a bit, until Jonnalyhn was apparently satisfied (whereas Jennifer, who had finally consented to try one of the tiny nuts, finding it to be not unlike a small hard apple, but unsatisfying regardless, had grown quickly tired of the whole business), and was ready to move on to more interesting things.
Jennifer grabbed the opportunity with both hands. "You said you could explain what happened to me, where I am, what this place is? How did I get here? Who was that person? Who are you, for that matter? Why have we seen no one else? Why did you show up when you did?" She was, perhaps understandably, a bit shaken up by this point. "And how long is this--"
Jonnalyhn, rolling back, held up both hands to protect herself from the onslaught, laughing, "So many questions! A feisty one, you are! And worthy questions they are all, yes, and I should answer. But where to begin, yes? Simple matters for a start. This is the Land of the Fer-Fers, of course. And I am Jonnalyhn." Jennifer bit her tongue to keep from replying that she already knew that, thank you very much. "Just recently we have left the Vestibule, in which visitors normally arrive. Who you encountered was one of the people of this Land. You may not be aware, but they are here. And sure to be, that one was doing just as I was, to see you. But, hardly fair I should tell you so much when you tell me so little, yes?"
Jennifer blushed. She had been a bit rude, she realized. "I'm sorry. It's just that this is all so new, so different," she struggled for adjectives, "so strange. I... Well, there's just so much that I'd like to know! My name is Jennifer, and--"
Jonnalyhn's ears perked abruptly up. "Jennifer!" she exclaimed as if to herself, and then said, "Much more and easier to be told then, I think. Much more. I think, not even for me to tell." Jennifer groaned. "But not to be afraid, will be soon!" She stood back up, and Jennifer followed suit. "To the Teller of Tales I think instead we should go, for she has more skill at the job. And a habit of eating more to your like, I should not doubt," she concluded with a perceptive wink. "Short walk, promise?"
Jennifer smiled and nodded. Jonnalyhn was quickly proving herself to be almost fiendishly likeable, she stuck away in another mental note, as they left the trees and turned inland this time, taking but a few minutes to come to the crest of the ridge. On the other side was a moderately hilly land with a greater number of trees scattered about, primarily oak, but with the occasional different tree which Jennifer quickly identified as the larch. A number of small brooks crossed their path seemingly at random, but they were easily crossed with Jonnalyhn's help and a bit of wet feet. As they progressed even farther inland and the scent of the sea gradually faded, the hills grew higher and steeper and the trees taller and older, with an increasing number of evergreens and small brush around them. The going became more difficult as the sun sank to the horizon behind them and the temperature dropped, and then disappeared entirely, though the light faded much more slowly.
Finally, on the far side of a large upthrust ridge, they found themselves in a small clearing. Under the eaves of an especially huge fir nestled a cozy little cabin, composed equally of mud, wood and stone. Smoke rose lazily from a stubby brick chimney, and the glint of light on the small window to the left of the door hinted at the fire within. A pig rooted quietly to itself within the enclosure of a small fence. Jonnalyhn, who apparently was no stranger to this place, strode quickly across to the door of the cabin. As she raised her hand to knock, the door swung wide.
THE TELLER OF TALES was a young woman, not much taller than Jennifer herself. Her hair was a dirty sort of blonde, with the occasional white and brown streak to make it interesting. She wore a loose blue skirt and blouse, speckled with small splotches. Jennifer guessed that she had been making supper, and didn't wear an apron. She felt rather clever, and went on to notice the woman's twitchy movements, and guessed further that she had just too much energy for her own good. All this flashed through Jennifer's mind in the merest twinkling of an instant, and by then Jonnalyhn and the woman were embracing, and then she had turned to Jennifer and caught her up in her warm embrace as well. She then stepped back into the warm firelight spilling out of the open doorway, and motioned the two inside.
As the door closed behind them, Jennifer took in a quick impression of the interior of the cabin. The fireplace was large, centered in the near wall, and above it hung a large pot of something which smelled unbelievably delicious. The opposite wall was covered with shelving, which in turn was covered with a huge assortment of things, ranging from books on nearly every subject imaginable (Jennifer wasn't in an imaginative mood at the moment, which explains that), to dried fruit, to small wood carvings of animals and people, to various technical-looking metallic doodads. Also feathers, a pile of assorted coinage, several long strips of cloth, a delicate golden sculpting of a butterfly, and something long and flat which Jennifer could have sworn was a television remote control if it had not seemed so out-of-place. The far wall, which was apparently flush with the trunk of the tree, was dotted with deep indentations, the largest of which seemed a bed, and the smaller to be various clothing deposits. Homely. A large cedar table dominated the central floor, but it was empty save for a neat stack of pine cones, at which Jennifer wondered idly for a moment, before realizing that someone was talking to her. She flushed a rather interesting pink, and turned to her two companions. "I'm sorry, I beg your pardon?"
"I said," said the woman, "Jonnalyhn tells me you came into the Vestibule, and that your name is Jennifer?" When Jennifer nodded yes, the woman startled her thoroughly by dropping to one knee and rising, before clasping both her hands warmly and saying, "My name is Jillun, but I am also known as the Teller of Tales, to those who live in this land. I am not of native blood, you see, so they have to set me apart in some way," she confided to Jennifer with a conspiratory wink. "But I fit in, as I think you will. Don't look so alarmed," she hastily added, as Jennifer suddenly looked quite alarmed, "it's a lovely place, no matter what the Witch does. Now that you're here, we can quickly put her in her place, and...." She trailed off, as Jennifer's eyes had grown to the size of saucers and her lower lip had sunk to roughly the level of her shoulders. "O dear. I suppose this is all a bit much, isn't it? Come, come," she tried her best to reassure Jennifer, "it's not all as confusing as it must sound. Why don't we all have some dinner, and I'll do a bit more explaining, all right?" Jennifer tried to make herself at least seem to not be bewildered as she was, but failed miserably. She let herself be guided around the table by Jillun into a chair, and sat there trying to compose herself. Jillun, meantimes, had swatted Jonnalyhn's hand away from the pile of pine cones and swept them into a basket, which she deposited in a chest before puttering her way over to the hearth.
Jonnalyhn sat on the floor near the fire and sulked in an irresistibly adorable sort of way. Jennifer sat and thought as best she could, but it was all so strange and confusing! A witch, Jillun had said, who apparently shouldn't be, and then the way she had bowed, and Jonnalyhn was so quiet now, unlike before. Eventually, after she had completely and totally gotten lost trying to figure things out, Jillun set a bowl of something hot and mysterious in front of her. A plain vegetable stew, in fact, is what it was, but very good. While Jennifer ate, Jillun and Jonnalyhn held a short conversation in low tones; Jennifer, politely for a change, did not listen. Shortly before she was finished, and turned down more with a heart-felt thank you, Jillun came over and sat next to her.
"Now that you're all fed, I suppose it's time to do a bit of explaining." She pursed her lips tightly. "There is quite a lot to be told, and not as much time as we might wish, so you're going to have to settle for the short version."
Jonnalyhn bounded over from her place by the fire to sit on the bed. "Like stories," she explained sheepishly. Jennifer grinned; and it was certainly about time, she thought to herself.
Jillun then proceeded to tell Jennifer a highly condensed story, and this is how she told it:
"THE LAND IN WHICH we live," Jillun began her tale, "is a Pocket New World. It is known as Fer-Fer Land, after its inhabitants. It is very important to always remember that this is their home, not ours, no matter how much we may wish it to be so. All the people who live here do so by the grace of the Fer- Fers. They are very shy, though, and often a person goes the entirety of their lifetime without ever meeting one. I myself have only twice had the chance to meet with one, and both times were brief. To the most part, it is up to us to govern ourselves, always ensuring that every action is for the greater good of Fer-Fer Land. This is the philosophy that has served us for many ages of men.
"Always has one of us been set above the others to rule, to preserve the beauty of the Land and protect it from others who would destroy this harmony and break apart the peoples living here. This girl, for it is always a girl, is the fairest, most pure and gentle girl from all of the New Worlds, as well she must be, for it is up to her to preside justly over all disputes and give equal attention to all her subjects. It is she which bids the Fer-Fers the good will of all.
"So it has always been, since our ancestors fled the Old Worlds after the Dragon and Lily Wars to come here, many thousands of generations ago. Always has this ruler, known as Alexandria (for the people of Fer-Fer Land do not distinguish from one to the next), led us all down the paths of peace. Always has faith been placed in our ruler.
"But now, all that has changed. The last Alexandria, bless her soul, was kidnapped several years ago from the heart of the Land by raiders from another of the Pocket New Worlds, the Land of Stark. Just thereafter, a girl appeared from another of the New Worlds and proclaimed herself to be Alexandria, without the consent of the Fer-Fers. Her name is Saffron. The people of this land know nothing to be amiss, but there are those of us who have always been different, and have given aid to Alexandria without question, and we know her for what she is, an imposter. You have already met Jonnalyhn and myself. There are others as well. Stalfos, Commander of the remnants of the Old Guard, is one. SCat is another, when he can be found. We are few, but devoted. Though none has yet discovered what became of Alexandria, we are sure that Saffron is somehow in league with the leader of the Starks, Stark Naked.
"This cannot be allowed! She has done nothing wrong as yet, but no matter how long she rules Fer-Fer Land, she will never be Alexandria! And there would be no reason for the deception, unless there were a greater plot afoot. As well, Saffron wields sorceries alien to Fer-Fer Land, sorceries which no Alexandria should possess. When last I saw SCat, he was almost sure that she was even no longer a virgin!"
Jennifer blushed. Jonnalyhn and Jillun exchanged glances, then Jillun continued, "You would not have been brought here with no reason, Jennifer. None have come here from the New Worlds since Alexandria disappeared. You are now a part of this as much as the rest of us, perhaps more so. You must help us set things right!"
Jillun, who had half-risen out of her seat with the fervor of her story-turned-lecture, sat back down and adjusted herself. "I am sorry." She smiled reassuringly at Jennifer, who was scrunched as far back into her chair as she possibly could. "But the thought that finally we may on the way to uncovering this conspiracy sets my blood flowing as it has not in years." Then, as if just remembering, she started and asked in a slightly embarrassed voice, "You will help, won't you?"
Now, Jennifer was not a foolish girl. It is true that she was only in the ninth grade, but she had a habit of thinking about things in a much more grown-up fashion, at least most of the time. She did not know as yet just what she had gotten mixed up in, but at the same time she knew quite well there was no way she was going to get home, and that she would never be able to live on her own in Fer-Fer Land, but if she helped out they might be able to get her home. As well, there was something about the two women that made her feel safe, and she trusted that feeling completely. There really seemed to be nothing else she could do, even had she wanted to. And so she agreed, though not in as many words. "Yes, I will." She had grown very tired by this time. And then Jillun was hugging her, and Jonnalyhn had stood back up to stretch out, and everyone was happy for a short time.
Jillun pulled a blanket off of her bed and spread it in front of the fire, though not too close, and Jennifer slept there while Jonnalyhn curled up almost in the flames and fell into sleep almost immediately. As Jennifer lay, drifting slowly along the same path, Jillun moved about quietly cleaning the remnants of their dinner. Finally she too crawled into her bed, and by the soft light of the fire, the three slept soundly and undisturbed.
IN THE DARKEST HOUR of the night, after the moon had come and gone, leaving a silvery trail across the floor of Jillun's home, a small wooden chest began to rattle and shake. It worked its way back and forth determinedly for a minute or two, then managed to jump sideways into one of the legs of the table, and fell over.
Jonnalyhn awoke instantly, leaping into a wary crouch over Jennifer, who still slept. A second later she relaxed, as Jillun slipped out of her bed and motioned for Jonnalyhn to join her. As she did so, Jillun tiptoed over to where the chest lay unmoving, and examined its contents. Several of the large pine cones which she had been so protective of the night before lay scattered about. Jillun looked at them from several different angles before moving to Jonnalyhn's side. "They're trying to tell me something," she whispered, "but I can't seem to make it out."
The two walked around the table to Jillun's reading area.
Many tomes sat in disorderly stacks around a large padded chair, which Jonnalyhn promptly snuggled into and looked properly alert.
Jillun set to among the books, discarding a half-dozen before triumphantly producing a slim dog-eared pamphlet labelled "Fir Cones Are Your Friends!" She flipped quickly through the pages, then found what she was looking for. She squatted and stared under the table at the pine cones, which sat in an obedient sort of way in the same place they had before. Jennifer snored, loudly. Jonnalyhn giggled, rudely. Jillun gave her a shameful look, stood up, and quietly as she could rummaged through a heavy chest which brimmed with odd-looking tools of all sorts, producing a small angular crystal with many rough and one polished face. She set this on the edge of the table and knelt before it. After several minutes of staring, the single polished face clouded over and grew dark.
Jonnalyhn bounded over to stand behind Jillun with a fascinated expression.
An image slowly arose in the face of the crystal. Dark storm clouds swept across an equally dark sky with no moon. Below, the lights of a great city, barely visible through the daggers of sleet and hail, twinkled ineffectively against the fury of the storm above. A shaft of lightning split the sky for an instant, and as if in response, a huge section of the lights went suddenly dark. Jillun and Jonnalyhn stared entranced into the image, as it suddenly turned downwards and rushed for the unlit section of the city. Down they sped, through the dark and the wet, until at last they gazed upon a lightless street with tall buildings rising oppressively on both sides. As they watched, a tall man came around a corner and ran down the street toward them, clutching frantically at his coat and hat. The latter was whipped off his head by a sudden burst of wind and carried out of sight almost immediately. He turned as if to chase it, then thought better and ran on down the street and out of their sight, utterly soaked and ragged. Nothing happened for A moment, then the image began to move forward down the street.
Several blocks later it again came to a stop, and rotated. Another burst of lightning set the area alight for an instant, and the two of them saw a young girl curled up on the stoop of a building. It was Jalia, but of course neither of them knew this, and Jennifer was still fast asleep. She was crying, but through the wind and rain and sleet and hail and nastiness, this was not immediately apparent.
Jillun turned to Jonnalyhn and whispered fiercely into her ear, "She is the one! She is in great danger! If Jennifer is our girl... Do you think you can make your way to her World, and quickly? We would not be shown this unless she was important in some way!" Jonnalyhn nodded yes. "Then go," Jillun continued, "and hurry!" But even as she spoke, Jonnalyhn had already risen and opened the heavy door. As Jillun waved her on, she pointed once at the crystal, then at Jennifer with a worried look. Then the door had closed silently and she was gone. Jillun looked out the window thoughtfully, then turned back to the crystal just in time to see the girl leap from where she had sat and run past the borders of the image. Instead of following her, though, the image turned in the other direction, to face the direction it had first come from. For a moment, nothing stirred. Then, as the image slowly faded from view, a shadow moved from the deeper shadows along the street's edge, and began stalking....
Jillun cursed, then remembered herself and looked over at Jennifer, who slept yet. She returned to the crystal, but it remained merely that. Sighing, she took it from the table and returned it to the chest. It persisted in doing nothing further as she closed the lid. She came around the table toward Jennifer (the pine cones had all helpfully moved themselves back into their own chest and shut the lid), and looked down at her. She snored again, and Jillun smiled. Even in sleep, the girl was irresistible. She stepped over her to lay another log on top of the dwindling fire.
Jennifer caught hold of her foot and snuggled up against it, and snored again. Jillun looked down at her, then at her bed helplessly, down again, shrugged, and settled down next to Jennifer in front of the fire. Enjoy the peace while you can, she reminded herself, it never lasts....
JENNIFER AWOKE THE NEXT morning with a fresh breeze pouring in through the open door, carrying the scent of fresh cooking full into her face. She stretched out and lay still for a bit longer, until finally hunger got the best of her. As she stood up, stretching again, and walked to the table, Jillun looked up from the book she was reading. "Good morning," she said, "you've certainly slept late. I've been up for hours. I've made breakfast, if you'd like some." Two places were set at the table, one with fair-sized proportions of fried potatoes and bacon next to a pitcher of milk and half a loaf of warm bread, the other with enough of a mess to suggest to Jennifer that perhaps Jillun was not the tidiest of diners.
She pulled out a chair and hungrily set to. After a couple of satisfying mouthfuls, she asked, "Where'd Jonnalyhn go? She was sleeping right there with me, but I never noticed her leave."
Based on the events of the previous night, Jillun doubted Jennifer would have noticed if the house had caught fire, but she politely refrained from voicing this, instead saying, "Some urgent private manners came up, and she had to leave very early this morning. She's normally a very stealthy person, so I'm not really surprised you didn't notice. I have a suspicion it will take some time, so you probably won't see her again before we send you on your way."
Jennifer kept eating, then quite suddenly stopped. "Send me on my way? I'm going somewhere? Did I miss something?"
"Well, of course," Jillun replied. She set her book down on one of the stacks next to her chair before curling her legs beneath her and continuing. "Don't you remember anything from last night? If you're to help, we'll have to get you in touch with the others. My place is here, I couldn't leave for the length of time it would take to see you all the way out to Chablis--that's the nearest thing we have to a large city here, short of Windrift, the capitol. I've done a bit of thinking and I think the most logical thing to do would be to have you meet up with Stalfos, and have him escort you there. The Old Guard should be leaving their winter quarters right now, which means they'll be camped at the far edge of the plain beyond these woods. It shouldn't take you more than a few days to reach there."
Jennifer gaped. "What? By myself? Walk? But I haven't--I mean--how?" She was not adapting to the situation as readily as she could have.
"There, there, dear." Jillun patted her head as she moved gingerly around the table, efficiently cleaning the table by pushing things off it into a large leather sack. "It's just barely a hundred miles, and this is really a very civilized place, despite all that has happened. And I'm sure the wolves--"
"--Won't bother you, as long as you don't forget they are as much a part of the Land as you are. And try not to radiate fear."
Jennifer radiated fear.
Jillun stopped what she was doing. "You know, dear, you're not adapting to this situation as readily as you could. Do you mean to tell me you've never been out alone in the countryside before?"
Jennifer shook her head, wide eyes and all.
"Well, I don't want to be rude, but you're about to have the full experience." Jillun sat down on the table next to Jennifer and clasped her hands gently in her own. "I realize this may be new and frightening to you, but please understand there is much more involved here than just what you may want. We're trying to protect the entirety of Fer-Fer Land, and we all have our own duties to perform. Mine is here. I cannot leave, do you understand? I can't say that I yet know why you are here, but I do know that remaining with me isn't it. There are people in Chablis that may, and Stalfos is the best escort you could have there, so you are just going to have to go to him. Is that too much to ask?"
Jennifer shook her head again. She had calmed down some, although Jillun's almost casual dismissals of things she would much rather run screaming from still unnerved her. It really wasn't all that bad, she decided, or she wouldn't be telling me so.
"Good, good. Now be a dear and help me clean up, would you?" Jillun stood back up and continued sweeping off the table, and Jennifer arose to help. Over the next few hours, together they set everything straight in Jillun's home and yard, and Jennifer had a chance to see it a little more thoroughly than she had the night before. Besides the cabin, snuggled firmly against the base of the huge fir tree, and the sty, there were two additional small buildings around the side, which were a small storage shed/smoke house, and a sturdily-constructed stable bordering on a small meadow which was shared by several goats and a cow, all of which immediately took to Jennifer. A wide path led from the clearing a short ways to a stream with a convenient pool into which Jillun unceremoniously dumped her sack of dishes. While she washed them, Jennifer took a coarse cloth and gave herself a very swift bath in the cold water.
That afternoon, Jillun produced several maps of Fer-Fer Land, and gave Jennifer a general impression of the route she would be travelling, as well as a general view of the Land in general.
Then, on into evening, they lay out in the meadow and talked about all manner of things. Jillun told Jennifer how to best make a camp for herself, how to set and bank a fire, and how to find food in a pinch. Jennifer told Jillun about her parents, Jalia, school, and of how she had appeared in the Vestibule.
Late at night, after another filling stew like the one they had eaten the previous night, Jennifer asked Jillun about Jonnalyhn from her position comfortably in front of the fire. "Who is she? I mean, she doesn't seem entirely like you or me-- and I don't just mean that she's covered with fur! She's, I don't know, it's like she's normal one minute and the next she's a million miles away."
Jillun fidgeted with her covers. "I think sometimes that she is. Of all the strange things and people I've met--and believe me, there are some very strange things here--she's by far the strangest. But at the same time, I'm much closer to her than I am to any of the others. Like we're sisters. But then sometimes, she frightens me more than anything. I don't know why she is the way she is, she's never made to tell me, and I've never asked. It's terribly impolite to pry, you know."
Jennifer agreed, and accepted the admonishment. She didn't intend to be impolite, but curiosity was a terrible incentive to do just that. She said good-night, and fell swiftly into a welcome sleep, visions of great cats and wolves dancing about her all through the night.
THE NEXT MORNING, JILLUN woke Jennifer much earlier than she would have by her own choice. After another rich breakfast like they had had the morning before, Jennifer was given a long leather cloak, and backpack with enough bread and cheese to last her a week ("Just in case," Jillun explained), a knife, tinderbox and wool blanket.
Amidst Jennifer's uneducated questions, Jillun went on to explain further that this was really all she would need, and no, the wolves would not molest her, and yes, tying her hair back was a smart idea. And no, she wasn't likely to be able to bathe any time soon.
Later in the morning, after Jennifer had gone down to the stream and given herself another thorough scrubbing in the cold water, Jillun sat her down in her clearing and made sure she knew everything and wouldn't go astray on her trip. Especially, she pointed out some useful landmarks on the map which she could use to stay on course once she was clear of the woods, the foremost of which was a high, solitary snow-capped mountain beyond the plains, many hundreds of miles past where she was to meet Stalfos.
From the map, Jennifer could tell this mountain was but the tip of a long chain that ran west and north, and nearly the full length of Fer-Fer Land's western border. On the far side, the summer camp of the Old Guard nestled snugly into a deep valley, and it was from this they would be traveling toward Windrift. Jillun traced out a path running west through the wood, parallel to the slate hills which effectively blocked her travel to the north. This would guide Jennifer until she was onto the plain, and after that she would have a greater sight distance and be able to determine her location more assuredly. Jennifer wasn't so sure about this, of course, but she didn't say anything, figuring that if Jillun thought it to be true, then there wasn't much point in arguing.
Shortly past noon, far before Jennifer felt she was ready to leave (by about a month, in her opinion), she quite abruptly found herself outside, wearing her new backpack and cloak, being walked from the clearing by Jillun. "And remember," Jillun was saying, "keep the hills to your right, and the mountain in front of you. And don't wear yourself out. And--" she seemed to just then remember something, slipping one hand into the pocket at the front of her skirt, and pulling out a length of silver chain, bearing a silver pendant with a tiny lavender stone set in it. This she placed around Jennifer's neck. "This is to show people that you are under my protection. Should you find yourself among strange people, show them this pendant and they will recognize you as one of us, and give you whatever help they are able to."
Jennifer held it in one hand for a moment, marvelling at the stone's beauty, before slipping it around her neck and under her clothing where it lay securely. "Thank you, Jillun. You've been wonderful to me, really you have. If there were anything I could do in return--"
"But you are, dear!" Jillun returned. "Believe me when I tell you that any help at all is of immeasurable value, and yours more than most, I think." Jennifer blushed just slightly. "But," she looked up at the sky, "if we stay here talking all day, you're never going to get anywhere!"
They hugged warmly for a moment. Jillun gave Jennifer A swift kiss on the forehead, then shooed her out of the clearing and on her merry little way. Almost before she knew what was happening, Jennifer was a lone traveler in the wilderness. Without looking back, she did what amounted to the bravest thing she had done since her arrival--squared her shoulders, adjusted the pack, and started walking.
THE FIRST SEVERAL HOURS, Jennifer enjoyed her walk. She had never had a chance to be on her own in such a large forest before, and she found it vastly interesting. Every fallen tree she had to clamber over, every cluster of flowers was new to her, and she spent as much time stopping to squat and look at things more closely as she did walking. A few times, rabbits poked their own curious heads out from the dense undergrowth to give her wide-eyed looks before vanishing in a blur of white furry legs and shaking leaves, and once a young deer took a few hesitant steps toward her from far ahead before turning and leaping out of sight with one huge kick of its legs. All around, unnumbered birds sang sweetly, flitting about from branch to branch and tree to tree, giving her a welcome sort of company as she marched onwards, always keeping the rough hills of slate within sight, but not so close that she would lose her footing on the treacherous spills of rocks that reached out from their bases to far under the trees. All in all, it was not unlike any pleasant stroll in the woods you or I might enjoy here on our world, excepting that you and I do not normally make such strolls over a period of several days to meet up with a group of soldiers we had never met and would not recognize. Or at least I don't.
Soon after, however, the novelty wore off. The wilderness did not grow any less interesting, but Jennifer found herself quickly used to it, and devoted more time to keeping to her path than to wondering at her surroundings. After more than a few hours passed, she decided that, while walking was not exactly one of the most exciting things she'd ever done, it was no great inconvenience.
Really, she thought it rather fun to be out on her own, setting her own pace instead of having other people do it for her (conveniently forgetting Jillun had, in fact, laid out her path for her). And so she covered quite a bit of ground that first day, stopping only twice--once at a stream to drink, and eat some of the bread and cheese which Jillun had packed for her, and once to, well, that other thing. When finally she stopped for the night, she had come quite near to the edge of the forest. Jennifer picked out a nice spot to sleep, concealed against the base of a tall oak by many large bushes which grew toward the tree as they climbed higher, forming a sort of cubby hole into which she arranged her blanket and settled down as best she could. The sky was clear and the moon bright, coming in patches through the dense layers upon layers of leaves high above, giving the wood a magical look. She thought it all wonderful, and couldn't remember when she'd felt more at peace. Almost immediately, the weariness of the day caught up with her all at once, and before Jennifer could even notice, she had fallen into a deep sleep.
And then suddenly she was awake, wide awake. Around her, the forest had grown completely dark, except where broken by the sparse patches of crystal moonlight from above. As far as she could see, nothing stirred. It seemed more a picture than the reality she knew surrounded her. For long moments she lay still as the rest, unmoving, wondering at the beauty of it all. Then, from somewhere far off, so distant that at first she wondered if she were only imagining, a single clear voice broke singing through the silence.
She could not make out or understand the words, but the purity of the voice appealed to something inside her, making her swiftly fill her pack and go in search of the source. The forest remained still about her as she crept cautiously in the direction she thought the singing was coming from, drifting in and out of the scattered moonlight like a silver wraith, drawing her onwards through the trees away from the slate hills.
Her pace grew more rapid as the voice was joined by a second, and then a third, each falling naturally in with the others until the air was filled with a whirlwind and Jennifer was running to find them, to join herself to them, to the song, though she never grew any closer....
She was so engrossed that at first she did not notice the low crumbling brick wall to her right, nor did she notice until it had joined with another which ran in both directions, blocking her path. She was forced to stop, panting with the effort of running unhindered so far. The wall ran as far as she could see in either direction, and was far too tall for her to even think of climbing over. From beyond, the song had built to a peak--but still just as far, just as tantalizing. She set out to her left, hoping to find a gap or gate in the wall through which she could pass to continue onwards. She could hear them much more clearly than before, calling to her, beckoning, as she again broke into a run, almost missing the rusted-open iron gates in her rush, but not quite. They flanked an entrance into the wall, a passage leading deep into what she now saw was a huge ancient building, crumbling slowly into dust. The passage was totally dark except where the occasional hole in the brick ceiling let tiny slits of moonlight through. She paused for an instant, not wanting to enter the foreboding passageway, but the sweet singing from afar captured her once again, and she plunged into the darkness without a second thought. The corridor led onwards for a few hundred feet, then abruptly turned left--and Jennifer forgot the song.
She stood at one entrance to a small room. Two other exits opened into it, one in the face of each side wall. Against the face of the far wall, illuminated squarely from above, a stone dais rose from the floor. Atop the dais, a stone table rested. As Jennifer stepped carefully out into the room, she saw that the table in turn bore a thick book, and a row of vials lined the space behind the book. At the table stood a short wooden stool. Behind the table, a short inscription in a language unknown to Jennifer was scratched on the wall itself. As she moved closer, she thought that perhaps she could read it after all--if only she could get closer.
Slowly, curious now, she took a step up onto the dais, and the scrawlings almost seemed to be recognizable letters. Another step closer, and they drew together into words. Jennifer leaned out over the table. trying to get just a little closer; just as she managed to read it-- Life ù Love ù Fear ù Sucker --She brushed against the table. At that moment, the table crumbled into nothing, sending the book and vials plummeting to the floor, and Jennifer falling backwards over the stool onto the cold stone of the room's floor. As she watched, horrified, the book crashed into the stool and the vials shattered, spraying clouds of fine dust across the book, the stool, the dais and Jennifer.
And there was silence. Total silence. The singing had stopped, and Jennifer felt suddenly very, very afraid for herself. From the passage behind her, a cold breeze blew in, stirring the dust up in ominous little eddies and a cold shiver up and down her spine. Without a thought, Jennifer found herself running again, through one of the other doors and down a completely dark passage, half-crazy with fear--then she found the stairs and went stumbling head over heels through the emptiness to finally come to a stop in a bruised and battered little pile at the bottom, in complete darkness, alone except for the scraping of wood on stone from somewhere above her....
THE DARK BORE DOWN on Jennifer, smothering her, dampening all her senses and destroying sight. From somewhere behind her, from up the stairs she had tumbled down in her flight, someone or something took slow deliberating steps toward her. She could concentrate on nothing else. The cold hard stone floor beneath her meant nothing, as with the growing wet sticky spot on her forehead. Only the pursuit mattered, whatever or whomever it was. Jennifer could feel every step it took, every careful avoidance of cracks in the stone, every questing feel along the stairwell toward her. Her heart tried to climb up her throat and leap out. Her body tried to sink through the stone to escape, but to no avail. She was trapped, cornered...
And above, someone or something misstepped and came following after her with a surprised squeak and a good deal of crashing and banging and one last, final thump as whatever it was came to rest at the foot of the stairs, mere feet from her. So close that she could hear its heart rustling...
--Rustling?--... Muttering to itself, incomprehensible gibberish, frustrated and angry. No less frightened, Jennifer's damnable curiosity was aroused. What matter of beast stalked innocent little girls in the dark, only to babble foolishly once trapping them? Although, she supposed, it was certainly better than what people who spent their time stalking little girls were SUPPOSED to do. There were worse fates, yes, but she was not safe by a long shot (Jalia, at that very instant, was much worse off, but that story is quite a ways off yet). Jennifer unpeeled herself from the wall, its cold biting into her skin seemingly for the first time just then, unsure of just what she should do, really. She thought for a moment of running past it and back up the stairs, but realized that not only did she know where key objects like herself, the whatever, the floor and the stairs were, but so far the stairs had managed to trip all (well, both) those that had passed over them until that point. Scratch one idea.
Then everything went white, not green, and Jennifer found that she could suddenly see, excepting that her eyes were throwing fits at the sudden reversal of states. As her vision slowly returned, blinking furiously, Jennifer saw first the carved work which indicated the foot of the staircase, then the rough natural wall in which it lay. The tiling upon which her body was twisted into several unnatural patterns was only a small landing from which the stairs were the only exit. In all other directions stretched a vast lake, still and quiet within a similarly vast cavern, its limits lost beyond the bounds of the strange light which seemed everywhere and nowhere. And at the foot of the stairs, watching Jennifer with what she could only guess was supposed to be an expectant sort of look, stood a footstool with a rather large book sitting on top. Jennifer stared at the book. The book stared at Jennifer. Jennifer burst into a rather hysterical laughing fit.
The stool shifted impatiently. Jennifer rolled about on the tiles a bit. "Are you going to take a while?" the book asked. "I can always come back later."
Jennifer stopped laughing, discovered an intensely vertical position, moved into it and forgot how to think, all at the same time. "Guh," she said.
"Thank you," replied the book. "So I'm the only one of us with the power of speech, then? A bit lonely, if you ask me, which I guess you wouldn't."
"You can talk!" Jennifer exclaimed.
"We had established that bit, yes. I could say as much about you, actually. You do seem to have a devilish grasp of the obvious, is it inherited?" The book was not so much talking as whispering, and Jennifer doubted she would have been able to hear it at all had there been any sort of other sound at all, which there was not, and she said as much.
"You're very quiet," she said, "as much."
"Well," the book retorted, puffing its binding out, "you're a fine one to talk. You've got lungs and muscles and vocal chords. You've probably never had a bad day speaking in your life. Look at me! I'm all paper and glue and leather!"
"It's a wonder you're talking at all," Jennifer said. "Where I come from, books don't generally do that at all. And stools tend to stay where you put them. And just what do you think you're doing, anyway, following me and scaring me like that? And why are you being such a snot?" Once indignant, always indignant.
"It's not my fault," said the book, "I was printed this way. What's your excuse? And I wouldn't be following you around if I weren't madly in love with you. And I wouldn't have scared you if you weren't scared already, would I? Think about it. Put two and two together. What-EVER."
"And stop giggling, your personality will freeze that way if you're not careful, and then how would you feel?"
"You're funny, you know. What do you mean, in love with me? We've only just met. And you're right, now that I think of it," she replied, thinking about it, "I was pretty scared before I heard you. How do you know all this stuff?"
"I am," intoned the book ponderously, "the Everything. Or I contain the Everything, if you prefer. I know all, see all. For instance, you're wearing yellow panties." Jennifer blushed. "Told you so. Even if I were not, however, I would know this. I am walking around and talking thanks to you, because you spilt a good deal of the Powder of Life onto me. I am madly in love with you, now and forever, because you spilt a good deal of the Powder of Love onto me. And to answer your next question," it interrupted Jennifer's next question, "you were frightened out of your wits because you spilt some of the Powder of Fear onto yourself. Is that everything?"
Jennifer coped with all that. "But if you're still walking and talking and, um, in love with me, then how come I'm not--"
"Because fear is fleeting, for the most part, and because we were directly and thoroughly exposed while you only caught a breath."
"I knew that."
"Of course you did. I'm the all-knowing one around here, thank you. And right know, I'm knowing that we should really get that mess on your head cleaned up before it gets infected. I know excitement does strange things to a person, but that's a bit ridiculous."
"Mess?" Jennifer reached a cautious hand up to feel her forehead, and reeled as the slight touch sent her perceptions of reality flying. When most of the pink and blue dots were gone from her eyes and her tongue had retched back into her throat, she saw that her hand was all but soaked with blood. "Guh," she stammered.
"Painful, I'll bet. No shortage of water, luckily, if you've got bandages?"
Like a good girl, Jennifer had already quite fainted.
JENNIFER WOKE SUDDENLY, FEELING quite a bit better than she had before. Or at least that's what she told herself, having been just slightly out of her head earlier (and, she told herself, her head having tried the same trick itself). She pried a stray bit of mortar out of her teeth, realized she was lying sideways on the paving stones staring at the featureless wall, started to sit up, and violently reconsidered. Some minutes later, after horizontal and vertical had finished fighting, she again--cautiously, this time--raised herself up on her forearms and eased herself into a reasonably upright position. As the world didn't go topsy-turvy, she pressed her luck and turned around. Slowly.
When she had finally twisted into a satisfactory position, propped against the wall staring out over the water, she realized she was alone on the tiny platform. The Everything was nowhere to be seen. But, her fingers told her, it had been busy while she was senseless. A clean bandage was fixed to her forehead and, while the world still went bouncy when she touched it, at least her brains weren't in danger of leaking out any time soon. She hoped.
As the rest of her senses fell into place, she identified the vague scraping sound as the one she had been so afraid of before, which signalled the descent of the Everything down the long staircase from the rooms above. She was just about to cry out in greeting, when something far in the distance caught her eye. Off on the very tip of the horizon, something was rising from the surface of the lake. She couldn't properly tell, but making just the roughest of guesses, it was: really, incredibly big; rising from the water with an even larger fountain of water and rushing straight up and out of sight; and utterly fascinating. So much that she couldn't take her eyes away until, with a clatter and a thud, the Everything clambered down the last of the few steps and came to a stop beside her.
"You," it said ceremoniously, "have awakened."
Jennifer slowly turned to face it. "And you," she replied, "are extremely observant."
"And feeling much better as well, I see. So how's your little scrape this morning? Still overreacting?"
Jennifer stuck her tongue out. "No, shut up. It still hurts. I noticed you bandaged it? Nice job, for a pile of paper and leather and glue. Should I ask just how you managed that?"
"No," the Everything decided, "you probably shouldn't. But you should thank me. Hint hint. And again, for bringing you breakfast, though you're probably not up to eating at the moment."
"And you're probably wrong," Jennifer said. "Although I am grateful. Very, believe me. Thank you. Breakfast, you say?" This last bit she did not wait for a response to, as she saw the loaf of bread and flask wedged between its uppermost pages. The flask, she discovered, contained a weak but invigorating wine, while the bread merely made it difficult to talk.
"I see your appetite hasn't been diminished one bit," the book observed. "If it has, I'd hate to see you normally. Eat the pulp from my leaves, so to speak." Jennifer chewed. "Anyway. I suppose that now you're all better, you'll be ready to get up and start moving? So we can get back on track with this journey of yours?"
Jennifer swallowed. "And, knowing everything, as you do, you know not only where I have been and what I have done, but where I am going as well. And what color panties I'll be wearing when I get there."
"Yellow and brown and red," the Everything retorted with a disgusting bookly leer. "Of course I do! You are traveling from the forest cabin of Jillun, the Teller of Tales, to meet with Stalfos and the Old Guard on their trip to Windrift. At which point you will join with them as part of the underground movement which is attempting to unravel the secrets of the recent happenings in Fer-Fer Land. And you are very homesick; even though you think Fer-Fer Land is a very fascinating place, you would rather go home and see your parents and Jalia, your best friend. And change your underpants, they're getting filthy."
Jennifer opened and closed her mouth a few times. "Do me a favor," she said, when she could finally talk. "Don't ever, ever tell me things I'm thinking that I don't even understand myself, all right? All right."
"Fine, fine. Be that way."
"And what do you mean, we? I need to get moving again, yes, but you hardly need to come with me. Although I wouldn't mind being pointed back on track--I seem to remember I wandered quite a bit out of my way before I found you and wound up down here."
"Well, as it just happens," the Everything swelled up in a self-important way, "I know a better way to get where you are going than back up and through the woods. I am the Everything, after all. And yes, I'm coming with you. You can't get out of it. Don't even try. Of all the times I've been invoked, this takes the cake. Animation! It's a kick! If you think I'm going to sit up on that damned table for another six hundred years waiting to solve some stupid wizard's sixth-order partial differential equation, you're screwed. I'm staying with you, where all the fun is going to be."
Jennifer made a face. "I wish you'd stop doing that, too. If you're going to hide things from me, the least you could do is not tell me you were hiding them from me, so I wouldn't have to worry about it."
"Mental note: tell Jennifer nothing." Jennifer giggled.
"And make her stop giggling like that." Jennifer laughed. "And make her finish eating, so we can go!"
Jennifer, having already finished eating, pointed this out to the Everything, who pointed out in return that she hadn't cleaned up after herself. Quickly, she pushed all the bread crumbs off the side of the landing into the lake ("Learned that one from Jillun, did you?" asked the Everything), filled the flask up with water for later use and stored it in her pack. "Much easier with hands," she informed the Everything. "Although you will have to show me how you did it, sometime?"
To which the Everything, avoiding the question as normal, turned from her and waddled straight into the lake, vanishing under the surface within a few steps. Jennifer stared, as usual. a few seconds later, it popped back up, dry as can be. "Don't worry, it's fine! Relax! Be cool! Trust me!" With that, it turned and again disappeared.
Absolutely confused, Jennifer shouldered her pack and moved to the edge of the water. Sure enough, from the surface of the platform the staircase continued down into the lake, quickly vanishing from sight in the murk. And there, just a few steps below the surface, the Everything waited impatiently. Carefully, Jennifer knelt and dipped one hand below the surface, to encounter nothing.
It looked like water, but felt like air. And her hand was dry, when she brought it back up. Outside the limits of the staircase, the water was water, but inside, it just wasn't. Amazing.
Reassured, she took one cautious step toward the Everything, then another, then another and another, until finally she too was submerged completely. Once under, she could tell the difference between the air-water and the water-water--the former being a much lighter tone and easier to see through, besides of course being breathable. Having satisfied herself as to her relative safety in this seeming impossibility, she followed the Everything down the steps. The short trip was relatively eventless, interrupted only once, when a fish fell from the water-wall onto the stone of the staircase with a surprised look on its face. Gently, Jennifer picked it up and pushed it back, where it gave her a grateful nod before swimming quickly off, dazed.
At the end of this staircase, they reached the floor of the lake itself. The light had followed them as they descended, otherwise they would have been able to see nothing, such a depth they had reached. And so it was that Jennifer was able to see the torrent of not-water-not-air that raged from mere inches away, sweeping off far out of sight. Not quite blue, not quite green, not quite anything, it twisted and cavorted into millions of mind-boggling patterns as she looked.
"The Waterways," the Everything explained. "It will take us where we need to go. Better not to ask questions, and you'll want to hold your breath. You'll understand once we're done. No!"--it interrupted Jennifer as she started to say something-- "no questions. Just follow me." Without a further word, it stepped from the bottom stair into the maelstrom and was swept away instantly, gone without a trace. Jennifer gaped. She was getting quite good at gaping, having seen and met more unimaginable things that day than most people do in a lifetime. But by this point, she had learned that when the Everything said something, it was worth listening to. And at this point, she really didn't have anything to lose.
Taking a deep breath, crossing most of her fingers, along with a few of her toes, Jennifer stepped forward and into the Waterways.
... AND WAS ENVELOPED IN fire and wind and ice and a thousand sensations more pure and more frightening that she had ever experienced before, wisps of power dancing along her limbs from side to side and returning to leap joyously from head to stomach to feet and then gone, but not missed as this was repeated a hundred times over and then a thousand in the span of a heartbeat. Jennifer's vision kaleidoscoped and wrapped around her body, penetrating into and through and around yet again, before she forgot the eyes and the vision and the body itself, then Jennifer as well, and merely was, glorying in the traces and sparks, one with the Waterways. On and on she flew, only distance no longer had any meaning and she was only traveling for motion itself, just for keeping pace with all around her, just for the heat and moisture spreading rapidly to encompass her....
... And was thrown from water to soil with bone-jarring force, knocking the wind firmly out of her lungs with a hearty gasp and scraping her skin up something terrible. Being at this point more or less used to being thrown around, Jennifer laid there for only a few short seconds before raising her head to see what new mischief life had decided to play.
Some few feet from her head, the Everything sat calmly on its stool, pages flapping gently in a slight breeze. Jennifer ignored it for the moment, delaying the comments she knew were coming until she had at least gotten her bearings. This was, in itself, not overly difficult. a short ridge of rock ran along the edge of a thin forest, broken at one point where a wide stream had cut its way through, tumbling down into a wide pool at the bottom before continuing on its way out into a dismal marshy sort of thing some forty feet from the top of the ridge, stretching out more or less as far as Jennifer could see. She was sprawled out along the edge of the stream, only a few feet from the tumbled edge of rock.
And her clothes were dry--"I suppose you're wondering why I've gathered you here today," the Everything's soft voice festered its way into Jennifer's thoughts. "I'd love to tell you, but, to be honest, I'm just as lost as you are. In a figurative sense, that is--I do know everything there is to be known, after all."
Jennifer fixed a devastating stare on it while rising. "Don't you ever let up? Couldn't you just explain something for a change? I'm not used to all this hopping around, you know, sorry if I can't deal with jumping into an underwater blender and getting spit up--dry, mind you!--in the absolute middle of nowhere! And why...." She had, in layman's terms, lost it.
The Everything shifted around on its stool until she had exhausted her breath for a moment and lay panting in the dirt glaring angrily. It paused as if, for a change, picking its words, then gently spoke. "I was not expecting to arrive here. I'm as surprised as you are at this. By rights, we should be within a mile's march of Stalfos' camp. But listen to me--the Waterways are never wrong! They deliver without fail to wherever you need most be. If we're here, it's for a reason, Jennifer. You're a part of this now as much as anyone." It paused again, almost testing, but she had caught her breath and stopped fuming, at least for the moment. The Everything trailed off and stopped thankfully.
Jennifer pried herself from the mud and limped over past it to collapse once again at the foot of one of the weak trees facing the stream. "Well, then," she softly asked, "what do we do?"
As far as she could tell, lost was lost, and whether or not she had something to do didn't matter much if she wandered in a swamp for the rest of her life. "Do you even know where we are?"
"Actually," it replied, "I do. This ridge is the south end of the west fork of the Sheynes, which is more or less the western boundary of Fer-Fer Land. The Old Guard's fall camp is at the south end of the valley between the two ridges, about ten miles south of here. We've gained a couple of days at the least by coming this way, so if we just head down that way we'll either catch them as they're leaving, or on the way north to Windrift. Either way, we're more or less set. And we are here for a reason, we must be. Coincidence is a joke, you know."
Jennifer said she did, and stared into the water. One thing after another, and she had never really had any control over what she did since she'd arrived. Jonnalyhn delivered her to Jillun, Jillun send her to Stalfos, and now she had the Everything to make damn well sure she got there. She sighed. At least, she thought to herself with a half-smile, she was sure to make it. The Everything seemed to have a knack for escaping harm, or evading it altogether. Healthy. And good for her, she realized.
Time went by. The sun descended from overhead to overforearm and settled amongst an unfriendly mass of clouds. A damp fog crept up from the marsh and spread past them into the woods. The meager warm of the day faded. Jennifer stared into the stream, watching it twist among roots and moss and rocks and finally throw itself into space cheerlessly. Time went by.
... And finally raised her pack to her shoulder once more, took and held a single deep breath, and followed the Everything into the trees and fog and damp toward the south.
AS JENNIFER AND THE Everything penetrated deeper into the forest, the fog pressed closer and closer in upon them, accompanied by a freezing bitter wind that swept through the trees as if they were paper, and did its best to do the same to the pair of them. Less than a half hour after they'd begun, Jennifer could see no more than ten feet in any direction, relying on the Everything to keep them moving on what she hoped was a still-southerly path. Soon after this the rains began, forming into huge drops on the leaves unseen far above, then falling sparsely to the forest floor seemingly with a will of their own, with a thump and a vigorous splashing all about. All things considered, it was really rather quite miserable to have to put up with, but all they could do was wrap their cloaks tighter (Jennifer had to help and supply the Everything with the hood from her cloak, which left her shivering and quickly drenched) and continue on. The thought of stopping and seeking shelter never once crossed either of their minds, as there was really nowhere to do so and they would just have had to sit in it regardless. The rain was not as bad as one might expect, since they were both soaked almost immediately (well, Jennifer was), and there is only a certain amount of wet you can be before it ceases to matter. The wind was wicked and nasty, and the fog was impenetrable, and all in all traveling was not particularly fun. The best they could hope for was to keep going in the same direction and hope that eventually they would come to the edge of the forest which marked the southern edge of the Sheynes, where the Everything would be able to get its bearings and set them straight once more.
It was quite a long time before this had even come near to happening, long before the rains had yet peaked, let alone begun to fade, that Jennifer began to hear noises from somewhere off behind them and to the left, give or take. It was raining, after all. A rhythmic cracking, as if something rather large were following them through the tightly-knit brush and not doing a very good job at sneaking along. She thought of saying something to the Everything, but as they lasted only a few moments, didn't bother, figuring it would know if anything were going to happen, as it more or less knew everything anyway. They trudged along in silence for some twenty minutes or so before the noises started up again, this time much louder as if whomever or whatever it was had gained quite a bit of ground on them. Jennifer began to wonder what exactly was going on, and asked the Everything tersely if it had heard anything, to which it replied, equally tersely, no. And they continued on in silence.
And then again, close this time. Jennifer felt smug when the Everything stopped, turned around to face her, and gave its best impression of a worried/quizzical look.
This quickly faded when the noises did not stop but kept coming directly for the two of them, now standing half-petrified in the middle of nowhere, dripping wet and rather frightened. At this point, the crackling noises resolved themselves into footsteps in the damp mess of the forest floor, and before either of them had even a chance to acknowledge this, from out of the fog not ten feet from where they stood a horse appeared, with a gaunt figure swathed in black perched upon its back. The horse was not exactly huge (in fact it was rather thin, and looked famished) and the man not exactly menacing, yet together they made quite a showing. Upon catching sight of Jennifer and the Everything the man reined his horse in, and they sat there for a moment, looking. After several seconds he reached up and slowly lowered his hood, exposing a thin and slightly goofy (yet strangely noble) face with a tangled mop of brown hair on top. The flesh seemed young enough, acne-strewn and unwrinkled, but the eyes as Jennifer looked him over were strangely old, appearing more so than anyone she had ever met. They looked each other up and down for a few moments--or at least he did, while she continued to study his face--after which the strange man spoke.
His voice was as mismatched as the rest of him, crackly and mischievous, sad and silly. It was a nice combination, and Jennifer was captivated immediately.
"Little girl, lost and alone. And soaked and stringy. My, my, and the lumpy sidekick of cookie dough." The rain had long ago pulped the Everything's covering into a goopy mess that sagged down around over the stool and nearly to the ground, so this was not as inaccurate a guess as you would think. "All dressed up and nowhere to dance, and all the king's men have gone home for the night. And here we are, wet and unintroduced. How do you do, miss, and what brings a nice girl like you to a place like this?" He kneed his horse forward a few steps to come up beside Jennifer and withdrew one thin hand from a glove, extending it down to her.
Jennifer gaped, if politely, then remembered her manners and grasped his hand as firmly as she could, trying not to tremble. "How do you do, sir, but we've been wandering these woods all afternoon and are lost and it was so wonderful for you to come along just now, as we're lost, and my friend thought he knew where we were going but that was hours and hours ago," at which the Everything snorted impolitely, "and this fog is just awful, and the rain, and all of it, and, well..."
He laughed, not unpleasantly, and waved her off. "And I've arrived to save the day once more. A bad habit, I'm afraid, I can't seem to rid myself of. Once more can't hurt, we'll end up rejoicing no doubt." He paused for the slightest moment. "And how do you do yourself, young lady? Not to return the favor too quickly, but I am SCat, pronounced like it's spelled, this is my horse Van-Van, that's a sort of joke, ha ha, and it's just wonderful for us to come along just now."
He was mocking her in a way Jennifer knew quite well from all the time she'd spent recently with the Everything, but instead of being an annoyance--although welcome, she reminded herself sternly--he was a fascination. "My name is Jennifer, sir, and this is my friend, he's a book, and he normally looks much nicer than this, really, it's just that the rain..." and she realized, feeling quite silly, that the rain had stopped, and the only noise other than the slightly labored breathing of Van-Van was the gentle plop-plop of what remained above falling in huge gentle drops, unseen, all around them. "Well, it sounds silly, sir, but Jillun told me I could trust you, and could you please take us to see Stalfos if it isn't too much trouble?" He stared, bemused. Jennifer blushed. She was babbling unbelievably, but he didn't seem to mind. She blushed deeper when she realized he was smiling at her.
"Well." He thought for a while, letting his gaze drift over the Everything ("Could I come out now, or are you planning to bake me while you're at it?") for a moment before returning to her. "Well, well. So you're our little Jennifer, is it? And a pleasure and a half and all of them are mine, if I do say so myself. Lovely day that we should meet, indeed, seeing as I am at this very moment bound to meet Stalfos myself, with news of rather great urgency. And a rush and a hurry indeed I'm in, but such a wonderful little passenger I could never pass up. So shall we dance, dear? Your little still-unknown friend shall have to make do for himself, I'm afraid, but we," he bent over at the waist and wrapped one arm around her shoulders and the other around her stomach, lifting her firmly with the arms that seemed so thin, placing her on the horse's wide back behind him before continuing, "we shall have the run of the floor. Hold tight, they're not made like this any more. And should I forget, is this temporary," he indicated the Everything's sopped hood with a flick of his wrist, "or is walking into trees the thing to do?" He bent over again, seemingly to fall from the saddle, exposing the Everything once more to the damp forest air. But before Jennifer could so much as begin to stammer an explanation, he burst into merry laughter. "Ah, dear fiend, we meet again! The days have been kind to you, I see! So the new trick is animation, is it?"
"Indeed," the Everything replied, its biting old self once more, "and you've not changed a bit. I told you coincidence is a joke, Jennifer, but this is a worse one. You'll notice I'm not laughing. So who is it this time, SCat? And how long will it last?"
SCat burst into laughter again. "Not this time, dear boy! You're as many hundreds of years behind as you've always been, and always will be, and I'll not be caught with that trick again!" Jennifer sat quiet and confused. "As for now, we've business to attend to, lunches to be had! Come along, Van-Van, set a pace for Lumpy here, let's be off!"
And they were.
AS THEY RODE, THOUGH the weather did not grow any nicer, on the contrary, the fog got generally even more miserable and damp, Jennifer ceased to notice or care, content to sit behind SCat, holding tight and listening to him babble about things they passed, or just randomly when that wasn't very interesting, which, as all they passed mostly were trees, was most of the time. The Everything trotted along beside them, brooding as only an animate book can brood. The rains drifted on and off for a while, finally settling into a sort of hazy mist that became one with the fog pressing in on the three of them, hiding everything but the most dangerously close trees and fallen branches and hidden depressions and other wonderful things like that. While SCat doubtlessly was paying quite a bit of attention to these things, Jennifer quickly lost all contact with the world around then, finding it much easier to lean into him and let everything else flow on by. And soon, far too soon as far as she was concerned, the forest came to an end and they were edging down a rocky incline into a grassy marsh that could only be a continuation of the one they'd left earlier, it was so flat and boring and dismally wet.
"... And this particularly choice piece of real estate," SCat was saying, "is known as the gross putrid marshes. Ha ha, or should be. The natives, such as they are, call it the Grey Wastes. Don't ask me, they're all a bit whacked. It does get a bit less boring than this farther in, we'll see, never fear. I wouldn't." He gave her a quirky look over his shoulder. "The point being, of course, that we should find the Old Guard mucking about somewhere in this mess. There's a bit of a road, a byway, they favor to return to Chablis each spring. You'll see."
Jennifer let him ramble, and they continued on, a bit slower than before as the Everything had to be more careful about where he stepped, being made of paper after all. As they advanced further into the Wastes, leaving the forest behind, the patches of land gradually became larger and larger, though no less damp and bland. Occasional brush dotted the ground, scraggly little brown things with big sharp thorns, giving way to similarly scraggly little brown trees (with similarly big sharp thorns) shortly, which in turn gave way to scraggly medium-height trees with sickly green leaves and, yes, big sharp thorns. At just about the point the solid ground balanced out the muck, Van-Van stepped cautiously around a small clump of these trees, and there they were.
The camp wasn't as large as Jennifer had thought it would be, some fifty or sixty medium-sized tents clustered around a large stand of what passed for tall trees (around thirty feet, scraggly, thorns, the whole bit). The tents were as featureless in a dark green way as the landscape was in a grey way, but the men milling about and talking and doing men things were comparatively colorful in their uniforms of blue and green. But as they were still nearly a mile off, Jennifer couldn't tell much else. On catching sight, SCat kneed Van-Van slightly, and they picked up the pace.
Within under a minute, though, he was reining the horse back in, and they came to a stuttering halt, confronted by two footmen in the same blue and green outfit as those ahead, with real honest-to-goodness swords strapped to their belts and wary looks in their set faces. Both wore long droopy moustaches and sideburns, brown hair almost tending to red. They advanced to within nearly twelve feet and motioned SCat to stay where he was, fingering the hilts of their swords nervously. "Right then," one of the two proclaimed, "that's far enough. What business have you with the Alexandria's Protectorate?"
SCat grinned and straightened up, shaking Jennifer's arms loose from his waist as he did so. "Every business imaginable," he replied, "from smithing to the making of cheese. We have come for the dance, and it would not do to be too early or too late, gentlemen. So what business have YOU with the Alexandria's Protectorate? Or is this party open to the public?"
The one that had spoken before grinned and flushed cutely (as only a soldier can). The other snapped brightly to attention. "Sir, apologies! We did not recognize you! The Commander awaits you! If you would--"
"That's enough, yes boy, put a sock in it. I think I would know well enough who is waiting and who is not, and who has stayed and who has gone, and the recap isn't doing any of us a spot of good. Or at least not now. Gentlemen, my companions," he rotated in the saddle to indicate Jennifer, "Jennifer the lost little girl, sent here by no less than our dear Jillun, and her amiable sidekick," stretching a lanky arm down toward the Everything, "the Repository of All Knowledge, in an all-new transportable package! Or something like that."
The two bowed slightly together. "A pleasure, miss." The one that had first confronted them turned back to SCat with wide eyes. "Jennifer, as in--"
"Love to stay and chat, boys, but we must be off. The floor awaits and our feet are simply itching with delight. But don't worry," he added a second later, "there'll be plenty of action all around soon enough. Might pay to be up on your steps, if you catch me aright." Before either of them could say anything further, he had wheeled Van-Van around and they were off toward the encampment, the Everything close behind. "Nice kids, but they're a bit slow. You know, behind the times, outmoded."
"What did he mean, Jennifer, as in--?" Jennifer began to ask.
"No time for that," he answered back. "We've arrived. The party can start. Lovely day, yes?"
They slowly progressed into the camp. Around them, men slowly stopped what they were doing as they caught sight of this unlikely procession, staring curiously at the three of them. SCat finally brought Van-Van to a stop outside a larger tent near what must have been the center of activity. Two guards, much more impressive than the ones they'd just left, with wide shoulders and infinitely attentive looks, snapped sharply to attention as SCat dismounted, then helped Jennifer gently out of the saddle. As she stepped down, the flaps of the tent door were drawn aside and a figure that could only be that of Stalfos stepped out. He was not particularly tall or wide, or young for that matter, but there was a certain presence Jennifer could almost feel as he strode over to them. He was trim and dignified, with a full head of grey hair that fit in perfectly with his image. He stood there for a moment, looking them up and down even as they looked him up and down, then spoke tersely, "SCat. You've returned."
"Commander," SCat replied, suddenly all serious. "I bear unpleasant news. We must speak quickly." Stalfos pursed his lips grimly. "But also a most excellent surprise." He reached out a hand and grasped Jennifer's shoulder. "This young lady has been sent to see you by Jillun, come all this way she has. By the name of Jennifer."
The Commander raised an eyebrow. "A pleasure to meet you, miss." He took a step closer to her and took both her hands firmly in his, smiling pleasantly for a moment, then turning back to SCat. "A most excellent surprise indeed, boy."
"And as if she weren't quite enough, I found this most delightful character tagging alongside her. Charming boy, I must say." He pointed down toward Jennifer's feet, where the Everything sat with a disgruntled look on its cover.
"Stuff a muffin in it, bucko."
Stalfos lifted his other eyebrow, and looked almost surprised at this for a moment, before bursting into hearty laughter. "Some things never change, I see. Which is heartful tidings in and of itself, as well. This changes much, boy. We must speak indeed. Now. I have news, lesser perhaps but no less important. Things have begun to move. But, for now...." He broke off to look around impatiently. "Where HAS that girl got to?"
One of his guards stepped forward. "Retired to her quarters, sir. Said the Wastes were driving her batty, sir, and she'd rather play dead on her cot for a few days than come out and have to see them again."
"Well, she'll have to live with it. Go fetch her." The guard bowed slightly and hurried off as Stalfos returned his attention to Jennifer. "We'll have you cleaned up a bit and fed first, you look like it could certainly do you good. We've got much to catch up on, so you shan't miss a thing, I promise. A course of action shall have to be decided on," this directed to SCat, "and quickly. Saffron has--ah, here we are."
The guard had returned with a pretty young lady in tow.
She was very pretty in a harried sort of way, brown-black hair reaching halfway down her back. She was dressed all in black, with lots of silver buckles and snaps and things. "Deon," Stalfos said, "this is Jennifer." Deon made a little motion that could have been a curtsy. "She needs to have all this dirt and muck cleaned off her, and perhaps you could find her something to eat as well. We shall be in conference, but bring her in regardless."
The guards lifted the tent's flaps once more, and Stalfos escorted SCat and the Everything inside. SCat flashed her an encouraging smile briefly, then they were gone, and Jennifer was again alone and very overwhelmed. This seemed to happen a lot.
"Well, come on," Deon said after a moment, "might as well get to it. You look devastated, really. Did you really come all the way from Jillun's? Nice, but kind of a waste if all you wanted to do was come here. Abysmal, isn't it? I don't know why they insist on coming through here every year. Down by the sea is wonderful during the winter, but no, not for this bunch. Silly men!" She took Jennifer by the elbow and guided her off. "All they think of is what's good for their training. What's wrong with training somewhere that isn't so absolutely terrible, I say, and they just laugh. I'll never, ever, understand these people...."
JENNIFER LET HERSELF BE guided along by Deon, listening to her talk and making only the briefest of replies as they threaded deeper into the camp. Her monologue was broken only twice, as they passed small groups of men talking, each one of which Deon greeted with the same irreverent attitude she had shown Stalfos, though no one particularly seemed to mind. After several minutes they came to a larger tent that must have been the camp kitchen, based on the wonderful myriad of smells floating from through the wide-open flaps.
"... The food's not really any better," Deon was saying just then, "but at least it's wholesome. That's something, I guess. Have to take what you get around these people. Texas has a religion, and all that. But. You look starved, this is the place for that." She pushed Jennifer inside the tent, then followed.
Inside, several tables stood in rows along the length of the tent, populated only by a couple of small groups of men, talking and eating what appeared to be a thin soup with bread. Another set of open flaps led to an adjacent tent, apparently the actual kitchen, and it was toward this Deon was headed.
One of the men eating looked their way and laughed harshly. "New meat, girl?" He and the others laughed loudly and rudely. One belched.
"Absolute heathens," Deon confided under her breath to Jennifer, and then they were into the kitchen, stopping just inside the tent. The kitchen was all bustling activity, as several cooks under the leadership of a rather frazzled-looking young man scampered about, preparing what Jennifer guessed would be dinner for the Old Guard that night. It was this leader Deon addressed from where they stood. "Pannie! Your assistance!"
He hurried over, wiping his hands on a rag slung from his belt. "Yes, Miss Deon?" He looked curiously at Jennifer, but politely. He appeared to be an honest sort of person.
"Yes, yes," Deon replied. "This is Jennifer, you might notice she's rather famished-looking, you might think that's because she hasn't eaten recently, you might offer her something to eat right now. And a bit quickly, once you've thought about it, as you'll notice that we look to be in a hurry."
He smiled. Apparently Deon's manner was known, understood and tolerated by most everyone. "Of course, Miss Deon." He threaded his way back through the others busily at their work, while Deon and Jennifer remained where they were.
"A nice boy, really," Deon commented, "I can't see what he's doing with an outfit like this. Then again, I can't see what I'm doing with an outfit like this. Everyone's got their reasons, I suppose. Goodness only knows they've got enough men hanging around here with mysterious pasts. A cheap way to get some respect is all it is, really."
Pannie returned then, with a loaf of warm fresh bread in one hand and a plate of stewed meat and apples in the other. "All we've got ready right now, sorry, but this is all that was decent and warm." He handed the food to Jennifer, who had time for only the briefest of thanks before Deon was off again. Jennifer flung a helpless glance back at Pannie, who answered with an understanding grin before she was dragged out of the tent again. "And that's quite enough out of you!" Deon flung on their way back through the mess tent, which was answered only by another round of raucous laughter. Then they were out of the tent entirely and walking once more through the camp. While Deon continued to talk, Jennifer was taking large bites of the bread, hungry enough to suspend her manners for the moment. Deon either was not paying attention or was polite enough to not mention it. Quickly enough, Deon again came to a stop outside another, much smaller tent, then entered it, holding the flap open for Jennifer.
The inside was mostly barren. A cot lay to one side and a chest on the other, with several books spread across the top, while another lay chest at the head of the cot. It was this second chest Deon knelt over and opened. "My tent," she told Jennifer. "Not much to it, but it's still a sight and a half better than the rest of this place. Not that there's much point in comparing." She produced a small bar of sweet-smelling soap and a knife, which she used to cut out a small sliver of soap, which she kept while returning the rest to the chest. "No harm in getting you cleaned up, really, it's not like they won't go back over everything twice and again when you get back anyway. Probably the last chance you'll have to be clean in a while, if things go like I think they're going to."
"What is going on, really?" Jennifer finally had the chance to ask. "I'm getting really sick of no one telling me anything, and acting like I'm this wonderful sign or something. I haven't done anything special!" She was, obviously, about to go hysterical yet again.
Deon stood up and faced Jennifer. "You've been told nothing." She made it a statement rather than a question.
"Well... Jillun told me a little bit about Fer-Fer Land, and about Alexandria, and all that. But that doesn't have anything to do with this! She was acting just as weird, and Jonnalyhn too, and SCat, and Stalfos, and even the Everything! And now you're going to start too, I know it!"
"You say you know nothing." Deon stood still, staring Jennifer in the face. "So what you are saying is that you do not want to know what is going on?" She continued staring, until finally Jennifer lowered her eyes and looked away.
"But that would mean...." Jennifer stopped, expecting Deon to explain further, but she remained silent for several long moments.
Finally, Deon stepped slightly forward towards Jennifer. "I don't know enough about what is going on now to be able to tell you with any certainty. And if you truly do not want to know, then for me to tell you would be more of a mistake. Look. Let's go down and wash some of that grime off you. You look like the underside of a rock. No offence. And once we do that, we can take you back to Stalfos and the others and they can work things out. Come on." She didn't want for Jennifer to say anything, but turned and stepped out of the tent. After a second, Jennifer turned and followed.
THIS TIME DEON LED Jennifer out of the camp completely, guiding her back through the trees along a well-worn path. As they walked, Jennifer finished off the last of the food she had been given, once again letting Deon carry on the conversation on her own, which she seemed more than willing to do. It was not long before the path wound down a wide cut in a rocky slope to end on a small sandy spit protruding into a wide and fast river. "About all that's nice out here," Deon continued from whatever it was she had been talking about. "It flows too fast most places, but up through here it's mostly safe. Have to stay in to shore, though."
Jennifer had knelt by the water's edge on the downstream shore. "It's warm!" she exclaimed, drawing her hand back surprised.
Which indeed the water was, an infinitely pleasant surprise given the last few places she'd bathed. Within minutes her clothes were folded into a tidy little pile at the water's edge, and she was waist-deep into the river, already feeling the accumulated grime of her travels wash off. Keeping a firm grip on the bit of soap Deon had given her, she bent down for handfuls of sand, scrubbing the dirt from her body thoroughly before cleaning it. Within a few minutes she felt refreshed and clean as she hadn't since far before she had left her home four days ago. She splashed about for a bit, sensing that this was the last bit of fun she was going to have for quite a while.
"All right, clean is clean, come back out!" Deon called from the shore. Jennifer made a wet defiant little ruckus. "I wouldn't be wasting my breath if I didn't mean it!" She stamped her foot impatiently, but smiled slightly at Jennifer's obvious pleasure. "Really!"
Jennifer grinned happily back at her. "No! It's cold out there! I'll shatter!" She giggled and ducked her head under water again, staying down long enough to let the current clean the last bit of mucky out of her brain, and stood back up. After shaking her head vigorously, she said, "All right, but really, how am I going to dry off?"
"You're going to jump up and down until you think you're dry enough to put your clothes back on," came the reply, with an accompanying wry smile. Jennifer shuddered, and at that moment a rock shifted slightly under her weight, throwing her balance totally off. She went down again almost instantly, without even time to scream. Her other foot went along with the first, and she was out past the tip of the spit and into the swift current within a blink in a thrashing little panicked tangle of limbs, coming up again with a throat full of water and the slightest of grips on the riverbed.
Deon was already knee-deep into the water and coming out quickly, yelling to Jennifer not to try to move and just to stay where she was, which was all she was doing anyway, until the current caught at her legs and dragged her down again, but then her wrist was caught up in Deon's surprisingly firm grip and she was pulled back above water, sputtering and gasping but caught up safe. Deon stood there for a moment, waiting for the coughing to subside, holding the weak little girl close and unmoving. Finally she said merely, "Well, told you so," and turned toward the shore.
Jennifer, her head on Deon's shoulder, said nothing in reply, but felt really bad about it. She would have apologized profusely had they reached dry land once more, but never had the chance. They had barely taken one step back when, inches from Jennifer's eyes, a short thick stub of wood suddenly sprouted from the crook of Deon's neck. For a single instant she wondered what it could be, then she looked up at Deon, who looked down at her with a frighteningly accepting look for just a moment, then she was screaming and spouting rivulets of blood, and Jennifer knew. Then Deon collapsed into the river, taking Jennifer down with her with barely a breath, and they were swept away instantly.
Jennifer fought frantically with Deon's death grip on her arm, as the last remnants of her breath were torn from her mercilessly, then a heavy submerged branch caught her full in the chest and she was clinging to it with the last bit of her strength, alone, pulling herself slowly up inch by inch until her head broke the surface and she could breathe, choking in the clean air.
She continued to pull herself up along the branch until her arms were fairly screaming with the effort, but finally she came to the shore, infinitely grateful for luck. She lay there for long moments, bleeding into the dirt from numerous scrapes, before she heard the shouts from back upstream, and realized that whomever it was that had did this thing would be searching for them, and to stay there would mean the same fate Deon had fallen to, and she wasn't ready for that. She got wearily to her feet and started to half-run along the dust ground, realizing after a moment that she had no idea where she was. Then she came up over a short rise and caught sight of the stand of trees she had first seen when approaching the camp with SCat, at not even a half- mile's distance. She guessed that the river had run round a bend while she'd been busy drowning, and with that fell to her knees in a spasm of coughing. When that subsided, she stood back up, taking even longer this time, and could manage only a fast walk, praying that no one would see her.
She had gone barely half the distance, falling twice more and taking longer to get back up each time, before the guards she had been half-expecting appeared from nowhere without a word, commanding her to stop, which she did with relief, standing trembling as they challenged her.
"That's far enough," one proclaimed, as before. "What business have you with the Alexandria's Protectorate?"
Jennifer shuddered again, this time more from the cold. "I was just there, he sent me out with Deon to bathe, but I think she's dead and I have to get back and I can't prove who I am because I don't even know myself anymore, but you have to believe me...." She trailed off helplessly.
At the conjunction of the words 'Deon' and 'dead,' one of the two had stiffened abruptly. He was thick and sturdy, with a mop of pale blonde hair and a piercing gaze that contradicted his soldiery garb. "Indeed," he breathed. "Proof to be apparent shortly." He unsnapped his cloak and wrapped it about Jennifer, which she accepted with whispered thanks. The other, who looked somewhat but not really like the first, eyed her suspiciously but agreed when the first told him to stay alert while they went to Stalfos to prove or disprove Jennifer's statement.
After Jennifer fell the first time, tangling herself up in his cloak, the soldier folded her up into his arms and cradled her firmly there, beginning to run as they came into the camp. Unhampered by Jennifer's weakened state, it was but a matter of minutes before they drew up in front of Stalfos' large tent. The same guards as before stood alert, looking curious at Jennifer's change of companions and wretched physical state but offering no argument as they spread the tent flaps and stepped inside.
Inside, a small table was covered by some sort of map. SCat and Stalfos faced each other from across the table, while the Everything perched on his stool atop a wide bench between them. As her escort set Jennifer gently back onto her feet, they rose nearly as one with suddenly wary looks.
"Qwee?" Stalfos shot out. "What is this? What has happened to Jennifer? And where is Deon? Jennifer, are you all right?"
She could only shake her head helplessly. SCat was already by her side, helping her into a chair, waiting patiently until she was composed enough to speak. "They--I don't know, I didn't actually see anyone, but they shot Deon, and I almost drowned, and she must have stayed in the river, and--"
"It's all right," SCat was reassuring her, "you're safe now." He turned to face Stalfos. "I told you they would be coming, but truly I was not expecting it to be this soon. She must be even more powerful than we suspected to move troops this quickly."
"Sir." This from the soldier named Qwee.
"Now, boy," Stalfos replied, guardedly, "anything could have happened. We can't go off unprepared."
"Sir." Qwee was strangely impassive. "Permission to seek out and kill, sir."
And at that moment, as if in punctuation, the clash of arms and the wail of combat drifted plainly into the tent, reaching them all as one.
STALFOS WAS AT THE tent entrance almost instantly, with SCat at his heels. The Everything hopped down from his bench and came over to where Jennifer sat, still shivering from the cold and the ache of the numerous scrapes and cuts all over her body. "They'll send you away," he said to her hurriedly, "if you're to have any hopes of getting out. Hide, do you understand me? You cannot be captured. This is far too important. Do you understand?"
Jennifer shook her head, distant and frightened. She turned her eyes to it briefly, pleading, then looked away. "If I escape," she said, "only if."
The Everything was silent then.
SCat was back at her side again, wrapping an arm protectively around her shoulders. "We are to flee," he explained. "These troops outnumber us vastly, we cannot hope to win. You must be delivered to safety. Come!" And then, when Jennifer did not move to respond, "Jennifer! We must go now!"
She turned her eyes up to him. "Why?"
SCat stifled his impatience. "Later! Do you want to die here? Have you any concept what would die along with you? All our works would have been for nothing!"
Jennifer nearly erupted again, then saw the urgency in his eyes, and faltered. "But... to where? There's nothing around here, how can we hide?"
"That we worry about after we get there! Come now!" He pulled her to her feet almost roughly. To the Everything, he asked quickly, "You know of the Jabberwock?" and when it replied yes, "Then go to her, tell her all that has happened. We could use the aid of the Roses now. I could not draw them out, but mayhaps she can where I was lost."
The Everything nodded as best he could, then turned to Jennifer one last time. "Do not be afraid," it said, "it will only hurt for a moment." And with that, he was quite abruptly gone from their vision. Jennifer gasped, but SCat gave her no time to be any more surprised. He pulled her along to the now- opened tent flaps, and gazed cautiously out for a moment. Stalfos and Qwee had already gone, along with the guards. They could see no one from there, though the clashes and screams drew ever louder. SCat took a single deep breath, then stepped outside the tent, Jennifer just behind him.
The rains had started again, almost invisibly light. SCat set out immediately to their left, away from the way they had come into the camp, the direction Jennifer had come up from the river only minutes before. He set a pace which Jennifer found hard to keep up with, but kept pushing herself, beginning to understand what was at stake. They stopped but twice, once when Jennifer tripped herself up on Qwee's long cloak, to which SCat took a long knife, cutting off everything below the level of her knees, and again when they nearly stumbled into the middle of a raging fight. Two thick-hewn warriors wearing standards of red on black over woven steel mail were beating down a lone man wearing the blue and green of the Old Guard. Thrusting Jennifer into safety in the shadow of the closest tent, SCat drew his sword and leaped forward in one fluid motion. Jennifer hid her eyes, but she couldn't keep out the short agonized screams that burst out almost immediately. When she stood up, SCat had already wiped off and resheathed his sword and was talking to the soldier he'd rescued. After a short moment they were on their way again.
"They're cutting across in this direction," he gasped as they ran. "Not going to be as easy to get away if they know where we are before we gain some distance."
They continued on, putting on an extra short burst of speed for the barren area between the trees, the camp and the crest of the ridge that would hide them from immediate view. Then they were over it and away down the long desolate slope toward the river.
They had covered barely half the distance when Jennifer put her torn and bloodied foot into a short hole and went sprawling. As SCat was helping her up, shouts sounded from the ridge behind them. SCat ignored the faint calls for their surrender and set Jennifer ahead of him. "Cross the river!" he shouted. "Get out of crossbow range! They can't cross, you can! Hide! I'll find you!"
And like that, he was gone, turning to face whomever pursued them from the ruins of the camp. Jennifer shook her head, trying to clear it, then started to run again the direction they had been. She didn't know how she would cross the river but there was nothing else to be done. Half-running, half-falling, she made her slow way down the slope. The already-hated sounds of combat arose from behind her, but she shut her mind to them and kept on. Then, seconds later, the sky lit up for an instant, and a thunderclap tore through the air. When her ears stopped ringing Jennifer could hear the similar thunder of booted feet coming after her, faster than she could ever hope to go.
Then Jennifer was brought up short at the bank of the river suddenly. She hadn't seen it, as it ran through a crevasse here, some twenty feet below her, down an almost sheer drop. Jennifer hesitated, afraid to make the jump, and it was that hesitation that proved her undoing. For the Everything had been wrong--her capture was not what was desired. As Jennifer stood on the edge, caught up in indecision and fright, those behind her continued, growing nearer and nearer.
The force of the first blow caught her totally by surprise, enough that she did not at first notice the tearing, or that it was suddenly difficult to breathe, or the point of the thick shaft protruding from her chest just above her right breast. It spun her around but did not knock her over, so that the second bolt caught her in the right eye, exploding into white and lancing pain. She screamed but no sound came out, her throat and mouth filling with bile and vomit and blood, then her lungs as well, suffocating and drowning within herself, not even feeling the third bolt, which tore into her stomach and ripped a wide hole in her gut as she twisted about with the impact, toppling slowly over the edge, falling to the rushing waters below. It was the wall of the crevasse that caught her body first, snapping her head back and nearly tearing it from her neck, and then Jennifer hit the water, thankfully, finally dead.
COLD AND DARK HAD come the storm clouds, rushing overhead and bringing with them a foul wind that tore at Jalia's throat, choking her over and over again with each breath. What light there had been had long since faded and fled before the rain broke loose; the tiny streetlights had shorted out not long after. Scattered gasps of breath and wisps of sight were all she had left. A towering darkness behind the grey surrounding her was the only hint of the buildings that shaped her path, hoping for home all the while but she could not have found it then. Not after having wandered searching for Jennifer for time countless (though it could not have been more than a half hour) in what was surely the heart of the madness. Lost - lost not two blocks from her own home, and now there was no way to find her way back even if she were willing to abandon her friend, which she was not. Clothes soaked through and skin also, hair a sodden mess, tangled, all shivering. Both their books under one arm were now a pulpy mass beyond recognition, but she kept hold; there was nothing else to do. Why would Jennifer have left them?
Another strong gust swept up quickly from beside her, carrying a shock of colder air and stinging hail; the wetness she scarcely noticed, but the ice cut into her exposed skin, drawing a surprised cry and adding to the general aching. She coughed miserably, weakly. You can't keep this up, something said, you need shelter; but there was none to be had. Her body was numb with cold, exhaustion screaming. Where was Jennifer? Where was home? She had lived there her entire life and was still hopelessly lost, at the worst of times.
Lightning tore across the sky, ripping it open from one horizon to the other, giving the terrible night a brief instant as bright as any summer day. It was accompanied almost instantly by a mighty crack of thunder, then another, sending her entire body into quakes that lasted long after the noise had subsided into the relative calm of the scathing rain.
That's right, baby doll. Now come to me and make this easier for the both of us. You're soaked and miserable; why should I bother? Little hotcake gone soft and sour.
She shrieked; it went unheard and unnoticed. Who could have spoken? There was no one there, and impossible that she could have heard anything ever if it were screamed into her ear. Imagining it? She didn't doubt that for an instant. The pain had driven her mad--joy! The bliss of insanity now and she needn't worry or fear ever again.
Not the way of it. Jalia. Girl. Turn around.
She did. Obey nonfunctioning cortex! Show me.
Ahead. On the right. .
She looked. He waved. That's me, waving. A black hand against a black background of soot and storm. A blonde. Impossible you're impossible I can't see that far now I'm wet insane and this is a dream. Good night. Don't make this difficult. Difficult it's all gone weird and we're the biggest weirdo of all. Hello love of my fractured life.
Shut up. I hate rain.
Phantasm real, he slipped out of the alcove and into the street. Moving toward her unimaginably smooth and dangerous and inviting. Yes dear. Now let's go to bed....
Illusions aside; Jalia screamed. It tore her ears wide and the cold rain on her face brought her out of the trance. And Tofu was coming. But how could she know but there he was and why was she standing there? Real tears on her face this time she turned and ran, scattering books to the wind. Jennifer how could you have left me to this how could you?
Jennifer? Fantastic, kid. Where'd she go? Maybe you and I can have a little fun instead, you know? You'd like that, a big girl like you. Or maybe we'll have some fun anyway...
NO! But then her foot stuck in a pothole and she was down, the concrete tearing her skin and letting the dirt and rain intermix with her blood and it stung all the more for the intrusion. And Tofu was coming. God how could you let me come to this I've been a good girl I have!
That's what I want to hear. Darling. We shall make beautiful music together, the two of us. This won't hurt, you won't even miss it. Shall we dance? Dine? Or fade to the sunset through the window as the fire burns dim?
His hand was on her shoulder, burning against the cold of the rain and her frozen flesh. Was that steam? What kind of a man was this? She couldn't bring herself to look about though she knew he was coming yet closer. Nothing to do now, why couldn't I have been crazy? To end up like this...
Tofu stopped for but an instant before continuing. It's all the same in the end my dear. Willing or unwilling, alive or dead, you all wind up the same. He worked expertly with her shirt for an instant. Now open wide for your lover boy....
As such, neither of them saw the faint sparkle in the rain, nor did either hear the soft pop of suddenly displaced wind and rain. She was free for all of the brief moment she needed to see what had been done and what would been done, and that moment was enough.
And then Jonnalyhn was upon Tofu in a terrible frenzy of claws and fangs and raw anger; and that, also, was enough.