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Chapter 11

Waylaid in the Bluewood

Lenny suddenly shivered and looked fearfully around at the dark wood, lit only by the now fading light of the Bryants' jewels. "Let's get out of here," he said nervously. "There's something unwholesome about this part of the wood."

Cheryl looked at him strangely, wonder shining in her dark gray eyes. "You feel it too?"

"Indeed," Viara said softly, a note of fear in her voice. "I quite desire a speedy exit. Let us go."

Without further ado they quickly returned to the boats, following Viara's unfailing woodsman's sense of direction. But when they got there Viara and the others were bewildered to find no canoes in sight.

"What happened?" Ralph asked. "Where are the boats? I know this is the place--I recognize that clump of weeds."

"Yes," Cheryl said. "I remember thinking how black and ugly they are compared with the flowers we saw back where the trees shone blue. This is definitely the place, but where are the canoes?"

Viara's face burned in the darkness. "I must not have secured them," she said, sounding embarrassed. "I thought I did, but when Arim came with his tidings and Lady Cheryl's need of sturdy rope, I dropped all in haste to return to you. I must not have bound them well, and they drifted downstream."

Lenny sighed. "There goes my hope for a hot meal by a campfire," he complained gloomily. He couldn't truly be blamed for grumbling, for he was hungry and thirsty, as well as exhausted from his long ordeal in the cave. On top of this, he was still damp from his dunk in the river, and the cool night breeze rose goosebumps on his chilly flesh.

"Well, there's no help for it," Cheryl said with a similar sigh. She was hungry and tired too, though the warm afternoon sun had dried her rich gown stiffly. "We'll just have to walk out of this rotten spot. The boats are probably long gone, and there's no help for that, but we ought to be reach Prince Emrey and Viara's clan soon. They can help us, I'm sure."

There was no doubting the wisdom in her statement. Though the light of the emeralds and marcellia stone had faded, Cheryl seemed to retain the foresight it had given her, though that speech had been mainly common sense.

So they set out. They found a path by the riverbank and followed it upstream for what seemed an unbearable length of time. Lenny began to shiver and sneeze as the night grew deeper and colder. Pinpricks of starlight shone on the dark running water, but the night was black here, for the moon was new and gave no light, and they were in the very center of the rotten spot.

Then Lenny stumbled over a crooked root and fell heavily, receiving a nasty crack on the head, his breath knocked out in a muffled whoosh.

"Stop, Lenny's hurt." Arim's voice was barely audible over the flow of the Olnar.

Emrey knelt by his winded friend and tried to help him, but Lenny struggled dizzily to a sitting position.

"Sorry," he gasped out, teeth chattering. "Just fell, hit my head--clumsy me. I'm fine--just knocked my breath out."

Emrey's face was concerned in the obscuring darkness. He reached out and gently probed the rising knot on the boy's forehead.

"Does it pain you much?" he asked doubtfully.

"It isn't much," Lenny protested, though his head throbbed giddily and he felt he would throw up. "I'm all right. Please allow me to rise. We must continue if we intend to survive."

The Elf-Prince put a hand on Lenny's shaking shoulder just as the boy sneezed loudly.

"You are shivering!" Emrey exclaimed. "Why didn't you inform me you were cold? Nay, I should have thought of it myself. The violet light of healing drove the cold and damp from my body, but not from yours. Now you may become ill because of my oversight."

Emrey unclasped his own rich, heavy cloak of greenish-blue and wrapped it around the weakly protesting Lenny, then scooped him up in his arms and began striding down the path again. Cheryl, Viara, Ralph and Arim followed.

For a little while Lenny struggled and insisted in an ever-weakening voice that he was fine, could walk, and didn't want to be an 'obstruction.' Before long, however, he grew still in the Prince's arms and the Elf looked down to see the boy's eyes closed, worry-wrinkles smoothed in sleep.

The path had broadened now, and Cheryl walked beside Prince Emrey. Behind them hiked Viara and the two boys, who were yawning and thinking longingly of their blankets, lost with the drifting canoes.

Cheryl glanced over and smiled at her sleeping brother. "He's only eleven, you know," she said suddenly, breaking the long silence.

Emrey looked at her, startled. "He is but a babe in the reckoning of my people," he said softly. "He certainly seems much more mature."

"He's not much older in the reckoning of mine," replied she, laughing gently, "but he's always been growing up too fast, the 'smart one.' I've often thought he needs to slow down, enjoy his boyhood. Perhaps here in Maychoria he can learn to trust others than himself, like Abba."

"Perhaps," the elf answered. He was silent for a moment, then added, "Perhaps we all need to learn such trust. Too often I have put my trust in myself and taken all the responsibility on my own shoulders, as when young Arim nearly drowned."

"Many are guilty of that," Cheryl murmured.

Lenny stirred in Emrey's arms and muttered something about 'black, slimy Katamobi.' The Elf did not pause his strong, steady strides as he wrapped the cloak back over the sleeping boy and lifted him a little higher, so he lay with his head on Emrey's chest. Lenny sighed and fell into a deeper sleep. He stopped talking in his sleep, though every so often he would cough and wriggle into a different position, then settle down and sleep deeply again.

Emrey looked down at his little friend and sighed. "I should have tended to his needs earlier. He had a difficult time of it, keeping a vigil through the afternoon hours while I slept on unheeding."

"You're taking the blame on yourself again, Prince Emrey," Cheryl reminded gently. "Abba knew what he was doing. And everything turned out all right in the end, thanks to the treasures Abba gave us." As she spoke she fingered the tibian locket that held her marcellia stone. Then she looked at Lenny again, thinking. "He has had a hard time these past few days. Every belief he ever held was challenged. I was afraid--" She paused for a moment, then took a breath a continued. "I was afraid he would dismiss the new things he'd learned and continue in his ignorance of the light, but the opposite happened."

Behind the two in conversation, Ralph stumbled and was caught by Viara. He yawned and shook his head dazedly, then continued walking--right into a tree. He scrambled to his feet in an instant, wide-awake now.

"Prince Emrey," Viara called, halting the Elf. "These little ones are too weary to go on. We must rest for a time, though we haven't yet reached safety."

Emrey and Cheryl turned and came back to where Arim had plopped down in the dirt and apparently settled in for a winter's hibernation. "You are right, Lady Viara," the Prince replied. "I had forgotten that small ones tire easily. But let us go on for a little way, for ahead I could see the Great Bend where the River Olnar turns south. We will rest there and tomorrow continue into the woods."

The wide-awake Ralph roused Arim with some difficulty, and they continued on. Cheryl could soon see that the path was diverging from the river, the water gently spreading in a great curve away to her right. By now Cheryl, too, was stumbling with weariness, and the two boys could barely keep on their feet.

Now Emrey called a halt, and through a mist of tiredness Cheryl saw the Prince lay down his burden, gently spreading the boy on a bed of ferns. Arim and Ralph immediately sprawled on the soft mosses beneath an ancient hoary oak and fell asleep in an instant, lulled by the smooth flowing of the river. Cheryl found a mattress of fallen blue-tinged leaves. They were dry and crimson, a sign that they were last year's growth, if she remembered correctly. But her mind was muddled with exhaustion, and the last thing she saw was Viara and Prince Emrey huddled in close council before she, too, dropped off into the blessed forgetfulness of a deep slumber.

Ryoo stomped back and forth on the bank of the castle moat. Sarah watched impassively, black silk-encased arms folded across her chest, silk garments flowing down to her feet. Dark auburn hair was pulled back from her brows and bound by a ruby-embedded clasp, but lay loosely over her shoulders. A scarlet mantle framed her black-robed body. Her thoughts did not show on her smooth face-- Ryoo had taught her the skill of hiding emotions-- but inwardly fear, doubt, and anger roiled.

She was frightened by the unfettered rage she perceived on the face of her mistress, Ryoo. Over the past week she had seen the Witch in all moods, but none was as frightening as this. Ryoo's own doubt had thrown her student into turmoil as well, but Sarah's anger stemmed from the report brought by the ugly Katamobe who stuck its malformed head from the dirty water of the moat.

Once more, that odious Cheryl and her companions had escaped the trap laid for them. It was really getting on Ryoo's nerves.

An animal growl fled from Ryoo's throat as she paced angrily to and fro, her raiment flapping in the wind of her passing.

"What does your majesty command her servant?" the ugly eel said in its low, grating voice, its disgusted tone contradicting its humble choice of words.

"Oh, return to your regular duties, Mosfoul." The Witch scowled. "I shall not need you again for some time."

"Yes, your highness." And the demonic creature was gone.

Ryoo continued pacing, her countenance clearly showing her ill humor. She muttered something about 'incompetent fools,' and shook her head in impotent rage. A clenched fist pounded the air as if striking out at her enemies, her arm slicing the atmosphere and drawing her sleeve after it in a dark blur.

"Surely," Sarah said, quietly and emotionlessly, "I need not remind your majesty of your old plan."

Ryoo's arm stopped in mid-swing, her pacing ceased. She turned abruptly, throwing a sharp, hard look in her pupil's direction.

"And what," said she cautiously, her voice like the black velvet she wore, "what old plan would that be, Inaryoo?"

Sarah turned to her teacher, letting her arms drop to her sides. A barely discernible breeze blew on her face, refreshingly cool, fanning back her auburn hair.

"Why, the one you spoke to me on the first day I was here, my liege."

Ryoo's eyes narrowed. She did not recall such a scheme. "Show your memory and repeat it to me," she commanded.

"You said you would allow the Bryants to complete the dangerous journey to this city, then crush them. Have your majesty's plans changed?"

"No," Ryoo said sharply. She did not want her student to know that she had concocted the plot from nothing to keep the girl believing that the Witch was always in control. But now that she thought of it, it didn't seem like a bad idea.

"In fact," Ryoo said, smiling, her even teeth shining like pearls. "It's sounding better all the time."

Mariel's green-blue eyes narrowed. She shifted from one cramped foot to the other and leaned forward into the prickly rosebush, listening intently to the conversation of the two on the bank. The sun beat down hotly, despite the thrice-blessed breeze, and her stooped position hurt her back, but it was well worth the information she gleaned. In the days since she had become a spy for the Jubilee Guild, she had proven herself worthy of the job, learning more of Ryoo's plans than a dozen other informers put together. She knew it was mainly due to Abba's guidance and protection, for which she was truly grateful.

As the Witch and her pupil strolled back to the castle, not suspecting they were watched, Mariel rocked back on her heels and considered what she had just learned. The latest the Jubilee Guild had heard, Ryoo had sent Katamobi to Maychoria to disrupt the travelers' journey and bring back prisoners, if possible. According to the ugly Katamobe, the mission was a failure, and the few remaining eels had returned empty-handed.

Juthwara would be glad to hear that, Mariel knew, but he would most likely be even more interested in the tidings of the jewels borne by the visitors from alternate worlds. Mariel was especially eager to hear the tale behind the gray stone that had driven the evil creatures away with one touch, and about the girl who wore it. Mariel had a feeling that if she and the girl ever met, they would become instant and fast friends.

But that must wait. Ryoo and Inaryoo had departed, and Mariel must get these tidings to the elf-leader Juthwara at once.

"Lady Cheryl, Lady Cheryl, please awake. We must continue at once."

Viara's beautiful voice slowly punctured Cheryl's sleep. Her eyelids fluttered, but she lazily let herself slip back into slumber.

"Lady Cheryl, I beg of you, awake! Lady Cheryl!"

Dragged back to consciousness by the elf-maiden's raised voice, Cheryl opened her eyes, sighed deeply, and yawned, stretching her arms as the dry leaves she was laying on crackled.

She blinked until Viara's face was no longer a blur, then mumbled, "I thought you were going to drop the 'Lady.'"

Viara reddened lightly. "I--"

"Oh, never mind." Cheryl rolled away and clambered to her feet, swaying sleepily and rubbing her eyes, which had pasted themselves shut. Ralph and Arim were already up;--she could see them heading down to the river with the only water bag they still had. Looking around the impromptu campsite Cheryl saw Emrey kneeling by Lenny, who was apparently still asleep.

Feeling more awake now, Cheryl crossed over and knelt by the elf-Prince. Lenny's face was warm, and two bright red spots marred his pale cheeks. He coughed moistly and mumbled something.

Even as Cheryl opened her mouth to ask what was going on, the boy's eyes opened, and he sat up abruptly, throwing off the cloak wrapped around him.

"What is happening?" he asked suddenly. "Why do you bend over me with faces of concern and doubt?"

"You are ill, Lord Lenny," Emrey answered. "I was uncertain whether it would be wise to even wake you."

"Oh, I'm fine," Lenny replied, and climbed to his feet. He swayed slightly, but seemed determined not to be an 'obstruction.'

"At least wear the cloak," Emrey persisted, holding it out to his young friend.

He pushed it back at the elf. "No, I'm too hot for a cloak."

"All the more reason for you to wear it. You are ill, Lord Lenny."

By the time Emrey and Cheryl had persuaded the sick Terran, Ralph and Arim had returned with the water. They all drank deeply, then Arim filled the bag a final time before they moved down the path again.

Ralph sighed and put a hand over his empty tummy as he and Arim walked together down the path, behind the others. "Viara," he said, "didn't you say you could find food in the Bluewood? How come you didn't for breakfast? I'm hungry!"

Viara looked back at him. "I am truly sorry, Lord Ralph. It is true I can find many varieties of sustenance in the woods, but I mistrust the black plants of this rotten spot. I'm afraid they may prove poisonous, and fear to touch them."

Ralph spent several moments digesting her words, then grunted in understanding. He tried to ignore the gnawing in his stomach.

As they continued walking, the gentle noise of the broad river faded behind them, and Cheryl expected the usual sounds of the wood to take over. But… there were none of the usual sounds! No small animals scurried through the sparse underbrush, no tiny rodents chattered in the branches overhead, no wind rustled the sickly-looking leaves, and no birds were heard, except for a faint, far-away call that once in a while rippled through the eerily still wood.

The tree trunks were not the healthy black, Cheryl noted, but dark gray with rotten-looking brown spots. The usual sweet scents of fresh, green-growing vegetation were replaced by the heavy, sour scent of a baloney sandwich left in a fridge for weeks or maybe months.

Cheryl sneezed and muttered to Emrey, "We have to get Lenny out of this wood. Both he and I are allergic to molds and fungus."

Her soft words echoed in the silent wood. The only sounds were those of their feet crunch-crunching on dry leaves or squish-squishing in decomposing vegetation.

The oppressive silence of the wood began to weigh heavily on the travelers. Both Lenny and Cheryl began sneezing and coughing, their throats feeling itchy, as if something was stuck in there. It was bad enough for Cheryl, who had always hated her allergies, and even worse for Lenny, who had already had a cold and slight fever. It was very uncomfortable for everyone, hungry as they were, because Lenny and Cheryl kept unintentionally spraying everyone when they sneezed or coughed.

At last it became so bad they were both stumbling along, leaning on each other, and Cheryl's hand knocked Lenny's magnifying glass to the ground. Lenny bent to retrieve it, and as he lifted it the amethysts began shining brilliantly, bathing the sneezing siblings in violet. Almost instantly their sneezing vanished, and the two drew deep breaths in comical unison, the scratchy feeling in their throats relieved by the healing light.

Lenny stared at the gems. "Why didn't I think of that?"

"I dunno, but I sure wish you had." Cheryl smiled. "I feel a hundred percent better now."

"Well, leave it out now, anyway," Ralph urged. "I was getting tired of being coughed on."

Cheryl colored and giggled sheepishly. "I'm awfully sorry," she apologized to everyone. She hesitated, then turned to Viara. "I owe you an apology too. I was pretty grumpy when you woke me, and I'm sorry. Can you find it in your heart to forgive my unkind words?"

"Of course, Cheryl. I accept your apology, and I forgive you." Viara sincerity was obvious, though her gentle voice bore more than a hint of 'need you ask?'

Cheryl grinned with relief. She was especially glad at the absence of the honorific.

"Well, let's keep going," Lenny interrupted. "I heartily desire a swift leave-taking of this part of the wood."

"As do I," Emrey and Viara agreed simultaneously.

"Me too," Ralph, Arim, and Cheryl said as one.

Peaceful amethysts lit their path and sent splinters of light in all directions, creating a dome of violet that moved slowly through the wood, healing as it went. Cheryl glanced behind her, then did a double take and turned around, laughing and clapping her hands like a two-year-old at Christmas.

"See?" she cried to her friends. "The trees are alive again!"

The others turned and gasped. Behind them the trunks were black, the leaves blue-tinted green again. Tiny blossoms opened on the ground and the very air crackled with renewed life. The trees were moving, stretching towards the sun, sending out new leaves that took the place of withered ones, their blue light mingling with that of the amethysts. They could almost feel the roots pushing deeper and deeper. Healthy Bluewood Trees

Ralph's hair stood all on end. All around him he could feel moving, stretching, opening, growing, pushing, throbbing, living. It was powerful and awesome, as well as incredibly beautiful.

"Fantastic," Emrey murmured. "The light is healing the wounds of Ryoo."

Cheryl all but danced with glee. She had felt the trees' illness in the marrow of her being, and now she experienced the healing too.

In looking around themselves at the no-longer-rotten trees, they had unconsciously pressed into a circle, their faces outward. Arim felt his ankle strike a taut cord hidden among the fallen leaves, and looked back with a sudden gasp of alarm. It was too late! Arim had tripped a snare, and a large net sprang up into the air, trapping all six.

"Hey--ow, get your foot out of my face!"

"Sorry! Can't move!"

"Oh, man, this is what comes of not watching where you're stepping!"

"Good going, foot, just great."

"Ouch! Look out where you're putting that elbow!"

All was pandemonium. It was incredible that six people could have so many knees and elbows and other knobby corners, and also incredible that each of them could find the absolutely most inconvenient places to put them! Ralph's foot was in Arim's face, Arim's knee pressed Lenny's back, Lenny's head was tightly pushed into Cheryl's chest, pressing her marcellia stone into her breast most painfully, and Viara's elbow was lodged in Cheryl's stomach.

The more they tried to remedy the problem, the worse it grew. If Ralph tried to move his foot out of Arim's face, all he managed to do was bash the Maychorian boy's nose, if Viara attempted to sit up and take pressure off Cheryl's stomach, she knocked the poor girl's breath out, and so on. At last they all just lay still, breathing hard, their elbows, knees and feet pressing into their companions.

It was very uncomfortable and embarrassing, especially for Cheryl, who found her back pushed firmly against Prince Emrey's solidly muscled front. One hand was crushed on the back of Ralph's knee, and with the other she could feel the stretching vines that formed the net. Worse, she could barely breath, much less speak, for Arim was lying on her head, and she couldn't see a thing.

The vine net stretched and creaked, swaying in the breeze. To its tangled-together prisoners time passed very slowly. Lenny's face pressed the side, and he could see his magnifying glass lying below, no longer shining.

Matter of fact, Lenny's entire front pressed the side of the net, and he realized with a start that he was touching the hilt of Ralph's eagle-dagger, still strapped to the boy's belt. With the weight of five solidly built people pushing on him, Lenny could barely breath. But if he could maneuver that dagger out of its sheath and cut a few of those dark vines…

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