Before long, they had cut a sufficient gap in the opposing portcullis, and were on their way along the dark corridor, following the tiny trickle of water which ran along its center. Their two lanterns did little good in the inky darkness, which seemed to have stained the walls black over years of lack of light. Aldous and Rafael followed close at Amos’ heels, who quietly and doggedly lead the way.
“So, what was happening back there, before we showed up?” Aldous inquired to Rafael as they walked, “You acted like we’d just showed up on the scene of something.”
“Aldous…” Rafael started after a deep breath, “I don’t know where to begin, there’s so much under the surface of this little island than we knew. Boethius was just the top of an iceberg.”
“What’s under the surface?” Aldous pressured with a little exasperation, “I’m tired of all these secrets, it’s time we knew something of the truth.” The other boys naturally came up closer to Rafael to hear what he had to say. Rafael glanced back at their eager faces with shy amusement as he chuckled,
“Well, I don’t know all the facts yet either, but I can tell you what I know.” Rafael went on to explain the current situation as best he understood it. He explained his and Amos’ shared visions of the Lady, her appearance at the lecture hall, and finally all that she had told them when she had appeared to them both in the waterwheel chamber. Rafael found this part of the story took the most convincing. Hermon had to be convinced and re-convinced that Rafael wasn’t joking, and Vincent had to be coaxed out of a minor panic attack as he realized they were in the same corridor a ghost had been in, only minutes before.
“We can’t be certain she is a ghost, as you call her.” Amos interjected, “We don’t yet understand her modes or why she comes and goes like she does.”
“She isn’t…” Vincent began, with an uncontrollable shiver in his voice, “She’s not, Annabel’s ghost is she?”
“From what she told us, I shouldn’t think so.” Rafael replied, his tone calmer than he felt about the subject. “She told us Annabel is alive, in a place called the ‘Helm of Nations’, or something.”
“And we’re supposed to believe that we’re not on earth at all, but in some other place called ‘Tellous’?” Aldous said, with his special tone of incredulity.
“That’s all I know from what she told us. We’ll have to wait to ask her more questions next time we see her, which if I were to guess, will be at her grave in the woods.”
“This whole thing gives me the willies…” Wallie shuddered.
“Really? You? I thought you were immune to the grim and macabre.” Hermon jabbed, light-heartedly. Amos shot the boys a curious glance over his shoulder, and said with a little puzzlement,
“You boys are taking this big news better than I thought you would. How’s that?” Hermon shrugged in his regular, exaggerated fashion, and replied,
“We all joined the Vault of Silence for a reason. I’d say it was because we knew when we found the truth, it wouldn’t look like anything we’d expect.”
“I wouldn’t have expected this in a million years!” Wallie added.
“I can’t say I’m so easily taken in.” Aldous said, “But I do trust your judgement, Raf. Even so, I need to see this ‘angel’ before I can believe anything she says.”
“What about you, Vincent? What do you think of all this?” Rafael said, including Vincent in the discussion. The boys all looked at him, including Amos, waiting patiently for his reply. The younger boy half-nervously looked over his comrades’ faces. Then looking back to Rafael, he remembered what Amery had told him in the lecture hall and replied in a mildly resolute tone,
“I believe you’re an honest and trustworthy sort, Rafael. I’ll trust whatever you say.”
Rafael smiled at his friend and turned to face the passage ahead full of renewed confidence. Amos looked down at Rafael and said in a deep, low tone which only Rafael could hear,
“You have good friends.” Rafael glanced up at the old man, the smile still fresh on his face,
“I really do.”
It wasn’t long before the first evidence of a way out made itself known. The tickle of a soft breeze wafted over their faces from up ahead, and soon a dim light could be seen. They found their feet walking up a gradual slope upward, and soon the source of the light could be seen.
The long, dark passage terminated under bold, milky moonlight. They found themselves standing at the bottom of a small, open-topped, stone cistern which was fed by the trickle of water cascading over one of the cistern walls, like water overflowing a dike. The sky above them was full of stars and obscured by the rustling boughs of mossy evergreens.
It took them a minute, but soon they had helped each other over the cistern walls, which were old and full of footholds. Helping Amos up was more challenging than the younger members of their company, but they found he was more hardy and less weak than they had expected for his age. Now standing over the cistern, they found they were in the middle of wild forest, and where the little trickle overflowed into the cistern was a good-sized pool of crystal clear water which had collected there over the years. Around this pool grew dozens of the same, unearthly, blue-white flowers, which let off a pleasant glow in the nocturnal woods, as if a single ray of intense moonlight fell on each of their pedals individually.
“Look! These are the flowers I mentioned!” The boys all let out a subdued gasp as they saw them there. Rafael rushed toward them and immediately plucked one of their silky stems from the ground. The others looked on, carefully and with narrowed eyes, as if trying to un-deceive them. Rafael produced his feather again and held them both up side-by-side for the others to see.
“See! It’s just like her feather, they’re both of the same kind.”
“Why do you reckon they grow around this water?” Hermon asked, coming nearer to the flowers after collecting himself again.
“Because the water comes from her grave, I saw it in a dream she gave me.” Amos replied, matter-of-factly. “This stream must lead to her grave, like she said. Follow the stream, and then the albatross.”
“This is the craziest business I’ve ever heard of!” Aldous interjected.
Just then, the bells from the College reached their ears, and with them the rapid approach of galloping hooves. The woods in which they stood were on an incline, and looking down the gradual slope they could faintly see the dark shape of a lone horseman weaving through the trees toward them.
“Put out your lights!” Rafael exclaimed in a whisper, as Aldous and Amos fumbled with their lanterns.
“Get back in the pit!” Amos hissed with extreme urgency, but it was too late, the horseman was already upon them. But just before they could shout, dive out of the way, or put up a fight, the horseman raised his arms and shouted to them,
“Wait, wait! It’s just me!”
“Amery?” Rafael said in a laugh, “Where’d you get that horse?”
Amery rode up alongside his friends, who were working quickly to re-light their lamps.
“I had it waiting just outside the College walls for when I escaped. We have to hurry, they’ll be on our trail soon if they haven’t already started!” Amery spurred his horse to head up the hill, but Rafael caught his stirrup, which made Amery turn to face him again,
“Wait, what did you do down there?”
“I can’t explain now…” Amery replied, glancing back over his shoulder and down the hill where he had come from. Just then the sound of the bells were mingled with distant shouts. “They’ve realized you’ve escaped by now. We have to go. They won’t follow us far past the wall.” Amery spurred the horse again and took the lead as the others followed, hastening their pace up the hill.
“Does he mean…that wall?” Hermon said with infamy as they raced to keep up with Amery.
“But we can’t go there!” Vincent squeaked, half slipping on a stump that was hidden under leaves. “It’s off limits!”
“Yeah, and so’s busting your friends outa jail!” Wallie retorted with a laugh.
“Would you guys quiet down!” Amery hissed over his shoulder, “And put out those lights. If they find us we’re dead men.”
At first this added statement seemed to Rafael to be a little exaggerated. Then the real weight of what they were doing fell on his mind. This wasn’t a harmless secret meeting in a barn anymore, they were enemies of the Hearthbrows; they would be known as criminals by everyone in town. They could not go back, whether they wanted to or not. If they were wrong in trusting the Lady, and there was not greater world outside to escape to, then the best they could do would be to bide their time on the wilderness side of the island, and pray no one finds them.
The desperation of their position struck Rafael like a ton of lead. Suddenly a wild, clinging thought to turn back and try to make amends for what they had done flashed through Rafael’s head. But it was nonsense and Rafael knew it was. Their only chance was to escape to the Helm of Nations, if it existed.
Rafael reached into his bouncing pocket as he ran, and felt the soft edge of the feather there. Its touch had almost a human life to it, and a spark of luminous hope sprang into his chest again. The Lady’s voice came back to him, whether remembered or heard he could not tell, saying, “You did right…You did right…”. Rafael swallowed hard and kept pace with the others.
Soon though, their uphill run began to fatigue them and, especially for Amos’ sake, they stopped at a small level place on the steepening hill. There were enough large rocks around for each of the boys to find room to sit and take a breath. Amos sat down on a large stump, his hands on his knees and his breathing hard and raspy.
“Here…” Amery said, dismounting and rummaging around in a wicker fishing basket he’d strapped to the horse’s saddle, “I brought some water.” The click of a bottle roused the hoarsely breathing captain. He looked up with a half startled expression as Amery leaned toward him with a glass bottle of water in his hand. Rafael recognized what none of the boys would have noticed in the captain’s eye as he looked for a moment at the bottle being offered to him.
It was a sad longing, the kind of look old folks have when holding a relic full of memories, even memories of dark times. There’s always a secret glint in that expression which confesses a wish that things were as they once were; Rafael had seen it many times. The old man was giving up his old life for a ghost and these boys, Rafael couldn’t imagine what could be running through Amos’ mind. Amos took the bottle with a gesture of gratitude and took a drink of the water.
No one spoke for a long while, each full of their own thoughts. The bells from the College had become almost inaudible by this time, and no calls or shouts could be heard anywhere. An empty wind tossed the high branches of the oak trees and provoked a sudden fall of leaves. Even the sound of the leaves touching the ground was audible, punctuating the nightly stillness which surrounded them.
The bottle had circulated to Aldous, who took a draught of it then resumed his slumped, melancholy posture where he sat. His eyes gazed vacantly along the level place on the slope, into the trees on his left.
“It’s in there somewhere.” He said, gloomily.
“What’s ‘in there’?” Hermon returned, a little irritably.
“What’s left of Boethius’ steamboat.” Amery replied for Aldous, also looking in the same direction. This provoked everyone to turn their heads and recall the other night. Rafael could not repress the shiver which ran down the length of his body as he remembered the withered corpse of Boethius; maybe his bones were still there, only a short walk away.
“How do you reckon they did it then?” Wallie said, breaking the tense silence, “Ya know, made him shrivel up like that…”
“Ol’ Redwick may hate, what he calls, the dark arts…” Amos replied in an even more somber tone, all the boys turning their nervous heads to look at him, “But if you’d asked me, or ol’ Boethius, we’d say whatever it is that devil does is twice as black.”
“Why don’t we keep moving.” Vincent said, standing up suddenly. Almost immediately the other boys shot up as well and Amery began repacking his saddle-basket.
“You’re right, we can’t sit here all night.” Amery added, “We have to cross the wall tonight before we get any real rest.”
Amery climbed back into the saddle and spurred the horse to move.
“And, boy…” Amos grunted, standing on his tired feet again, “Not so fast this time, eh?”
“Yes, captain.” Amery smiled at Amos, then clicked his tongue and the horse began again, up the hill.
As they continued, Vincent said to no one in particular,
“What gets me is, why are we doing this at all if Amos and Rafael were propper criminals anyway? Wouldn’t that mean they’d be exiled beyond the wall, which is where we’re planning on going anyway?”
Hermon scoffed loudly, and Vincent immediately spoke back before Hermon could fling his abuse,
“Why’s this toad-licker always gotta answer my questions?”
“Toad licker?” Rafael heard Aldous mutter under his breath.
“‘Cause I’m not embarrassed to know more than you do.” Hermon retorted, and continued, “Ol’ Raf and the captain aren’t just proper criminals, they’re accused of ‘sorcery’, ‘magic’ or whatever you want to call it.”
“Alright, so what do they do to magicians?” Vincent continued, visibly looking at the other, and not to Hermon for an answer.
“I’ve heard they get burned at the stake.” Wallie interjected before Hermon could say anything.
“That was just in a book you read, Wallie.” Amery corrected, “That’s not the custom in Lerga. There’s never been a case like this in my lifetime, but I heard they just hang folks accused of dark arts.”
“I wouldn’t trust much of what you’ve heard of the College.” Amos spoke up, “The penalty for the truth is what they did to Boethius.” He concluded, bluntly. Silence dominated the group for a long minute, then Aldous spoke,
“How far is this wall anyway?”
“From what I’ve heard, it’s at the top of Baker’s hill, which I believe is where we’re at right now.” Amery replied, bumping up and down in the saddle as he trotted alongside the group.
“You believe? Ain’t you been there before?” Wallie retorted.
“Well, no I can’t say I have.” Amery said, a little snappishly, “Have you?”
Wallie looked chastened and replied in a humbler tone,
“Uh, no I reckon…I only asked ‘cause you’re the one leading us.”
“Wait a minute…” Hermon said with the beginnings of an accusatory tone, “Wasn’t it you who made that quip about the bricks having ‘Lerga Kilns’ stamped on them? How’d you know if you’ve never been?” Hermon eyed Wallie incredulously. Wallie looked at the ground with a guilty face, saying,
“I hear lots of things around town…all of it true too!” He defended himself, “From reliable sources.”
“‘Reliable sources’?!” Hermon laughed, “Can you believe it!”
“So, has anyone been to the wall?” Rafael questioned, realizing the implications of what they were talking about. No one spoke for a long moment, then Amery spoke up in his own defense,
“There’s nowhere else for the wall to be but over this hill, we all know it’s forbidden to go beyond Baker’s hill. That’s the only place it can be. So don’t worry, just follow me.”
The others all quietly eyed each other, then looked to Amos, who was unspokenly their second authority. But his expression was far from them, so distant and full of unknown thoughts they immediately looked away. They resumed walking quietly along their way, each attending to their own thoughts.
Rafael could not help but continually look over his shoulder, plagued with that nervous responsibility assumed by the man at the back of a group. But it wasn’t just for this reason he kept looking back. He thought he heard something behind them. It was too irregular to be a second pair of feet following, and each time he looked there was no movement at all, except falling leaves.
The environment around them was beginning to change visibly into a drier, more scrub-like terrain. The slick, glossy Live Oak leaves which they had been walking on, by degrees, had become almost entirely crunchy, dry Cedar needles. The stout, brambly trees grew closer together than the oaks, and their network of thin, sharp, brittle tigs poked and snapped as they pushed through the woods. But still the narrow channel of water continued along its way, and they followed doggedly.
They became aware, after about another half mile, that the land on either side rose above them, so that they walked in a subtle cleft, at the bottom of which ran the trickle of water. These two growing hummocks of land on either side soon became nearer, and steeper; and the ground beneath them grew drier, and more rocky. It soon became apparent they were walking in a dry creek bed, between two lengthening, limestone cliffs, and in the trough of the creek bed, the trickle ran on.
The night, by this time, was getting near early morning, and they were all feeling exhausted. Hermon, Wallie, and Vincent began to grumble, while the others became gravely quiet. Their eyes floated nervously over the alien cliffs on either side of them, the chalky walls appearing gaunt and stark, like bone in the crisp moonlight.
“You don’t reckon we crossed the wall by accident already?” Wallie wondered aloud.
“No, we would have known.” Amery replied bluntly.
“If there is a wall…” Hermon murmured.
“Wait…” Rafael said suddenly, moving closer to the front alongside Amery who was still mounted in the lead.
“What is it?” Amery asked, looking down at his friend with a little concern.
“What’s that? Up ahead, can’t you all see it?” Rafael replied urgently to the others.
They all looked up ahead of them and squinted to see what Rafael saw, and when they did there was a unanimous gasp, of both amazement and apprehensive curiosity. Without speaking they continued a hundred yards forward to get a better look at what was ahead of them.
Now that they were closer, it was unmistakable silhouetted against the night sky. Hung between the two, now towering, cliffs on either side of them was an enormous net. It barricaded the pass from the top, almost touching the bottom with thick, sinuous rope, resembling a huge cargo net. But it was bigger than any net Rafael had ever seen on the wharfs, and the closer they got to it the more detail they saw. It was attached to the stone walls of the gorge they walked it by thick, steel chains, and what looked like the remains of an old, wood truss bridge over the top, half missing from decay. Braided into the thick strands of rope they could see metal barbs and blades, as if the net had been meant to catch and kill whatever flew into it.
They stood underneath it now, speechless as they looked up the length of the sinister, gorgon barrier. A deep chill ran through Rafael’s body as he looked at it, as if he were laying eyes on something stained with an evil history.
“Folk in town never talked about a net.” Wallie muttered stupidly, head completely cocked back to see to the top. Amos replied,
“Folk in town don’t know half of what’s out here.”