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Chapter 9

River Adventures

Ralph sighed in exasperation. "No, no," he admonished his boat-mate. "Hold your paddle like this, not like that. It's a tool, not a club. Think of it as a knife, slicing the water, not slapping it!"

"Good analogy, Ralph!" Lenny called from the boat behind Ralph and Arim's. "You comprehended that, Prince Emrey? Hold the paddle thus. A knife, not a club."

Emrey tried, then sighed. "The Trastille clan does not live near a body of water, young friend. It is difficult for me."

Viara turned around and smiled at Cheryl in the forward boat. "He speaks truly, Lady Cheryl. I am unused to the way of the stream."

Cheryl smiled back, trying to instill some of Angel's peace and encouragement into her own expression. "I understand. I had the same troubles when I first began canoeing. It's second nature once you get used to it."

"Second nature indeed," Arim grumbled in a low voice, still struggling with the unaccustomed paddle. To be honest, he was still out of sorts about leaving his mother behind. None of the others had observed Faela and Arim's little farewell scene, but they could tell the sundering of mother and son was painful to both. Point of instance was Arim's bad attitude about the new canoes.

The canoes were lightly built, of a grayish-brown wood with the bark on the outside. They were made to ride low in the water and difficult to capsize, though none of the travelers relished the thought of finding out how difficult. Even Faela and Emrey didn't know where they'd come from, but they accepted them as gifts of Abba and had no qualms about using them.

As the afternoon wore on Arim's spirits lifted, and he began teaching Ralph to mimic the calls of the birds around them. The river was broad and deep, with few twists and turns, and they paddled through Maychoria, now through forests, now past meadows, and sometimes through farmlands and small villages.

They never saw a single member of the Three Peoples, however, and that troubled them more than a little. Had all Maychoria fallen under the Witch's spell?

"One would wonder why the good River Olnar does not sleep as well," Emrey mused as they passed through another silent town.

"It does!" Arim complained. "We move like mud turtles against this current!"

Ralph sighed and steered the canoe to where the current was less strong. He did not mention that he disliked moving upstream, as well. "It's not sleeping, your arms are!" he teased his friend.

So the talk was turned to other subjects, and for a time they forgot the mysterious absence of people.

Far away, Ryoo stood at her favorite tower window, watching their progress with displeasure. Her attacks had all been foiled; a shell of protection surrounded the three little boats. The Witch's only consolation was that she had succeeded in filling the hearts of all the other Maychorians with a senseless fear.

Ryoo scowled and brooded on her failures. She could not touch that abominable girl, Cheryl, though her incompetent apprentice, Inaryoo, had managed to do that very thing. Her Katamobic minion had failed to bring back the treasures she coveted, but lost them to the warrior Elinróme, Rhys. To add insult to injury, her great and powerful storm had not delayed them at all, but had set their minds on the tunnel, and the boats had been found! Ryoo's eyebrows lowered at the thought, then lifted at the memory of the one thing she was succeeding at: Inaryoo was growing more like her mistress with each lesson in the dark paths of the power of Kataphage.

Right now, Inaryoo was in the palace garden, toying with a new skill the Witch had taught her.

The garden was dark, stunted, filled with mutant plants and ugly stone sculptures, but that bothered Sarah not at all. She sat cross-legged on the ground, gazing intently at a rose. The flower was beautiful, velvety red and fully opened. Unlike its black, malformed surroundings, it was perfectly formed, green and fresh.

But Sarah would change that.

She concentrated on being angry with the flower, but found it impossible. It was beautiful, and Sarah liked beautiful things.

No! No, she didn't like beautiful things! She hated them! The rose shivered in an unseen wind.

It wasn't fair! Sarah ought to be beautiful! She should be powerful, lovely, popular, great and beautiful. But she wasn't, and it wasn't fair! The rose's petals grew sickly yellow spots; its leaves drooped sadly.

Sarah mustered up all the bitterness and anger she had against her sister and poured it on the little flower. The rose's petals were black and falling, the stem weak and bending, the leaves yellow and curled up.

Without a sound, the rose withered to the ground.

Sarah smiled her satisfaction. She was unaware of the gloating figure of Ryoo watching from her window.

Ryoo smiled knowingly. Inaryoo was coming along nicely, and the Katamobi she'd sent to Maychoria should be there right about now….

The westering sun cast shadows of the wind-tossed branches of the trees along the bank across the smooth ripples of the Olnar River. In the center canoe, Ralph and Arim were whooping it up, sounding like musical songbirds, saucy jays, and scolding catbirds whenever the fit took them. Cheryl was quite enjoying herself, now that Viara had learned to balance their boat. All three boats had yet to tip, (despite the violent shaking and wavering of the Maychorians during their tutorage,) so broad and sturdy were they. In fact, both Arim and Ralph were leaning over the same side of their boat without a problem.

"Hey, Cheryl!" Ralph yelled. "It's that little bird again!"

Cheryl looked, and the blue and white (with gold trimming) bird that had woken her that morning was flitting along high above.

Cheryl was still watching the little songbird when she heard two loud gasps and a splash. She gasped too when she turned and saw the overturned canoe floating slowly away, with various boxes and bundles and two heads, one brown and one gold, all following the canoe like the tail of a comet.

Cheryl quickly turned her boat and headed back downstream towards the trail of floating debris. Lenny and Emrey only made a slight course correction and waited for the spilled objects to reach them.

"Help!" cried Arim, who could not swim. "I can't--" He caught a mouthful of water and went under.

Ralph plunged away from the overturned boat, which he had grabbed immediately like the clear-headed and sensible person he was. "Kick your feet!" he called to his friend as he thrashed wildly to the place where Arim had gone down.

A hand stretched above the water and waved desperately as Ralph and the two canoes headed for it in alarm. Then the hand too sank from sight, clutching at the bubbles, just as Ralph reached the spot.

It seemed to take forever to get there. Ralph took a deep breath and dove down as the other canoes converged on the location. Leaning over, Cheryl peered into the clear blue depths, searching for a sign of the two boys. Seconds ticked off slowly, and Ralph did not appear.

"There!" yelled Lenny, pointing down.

Cheryl was still trying to see when Ralph broke surface just within her reach, hauling the limp form of the Maychorian boy up with him.

Four pairs of arms reached for the two boys, and soon they were pulling the three canoes up on the bank. Emrey laid the unconscious Arim out on the sandy earth bank and set his ear on the boy's chest to listen for a moment. Ralph leaned on Cheryl's shoulder and sobbed with fear.

Emrey grave face came up. "His soul has not yet fled his body," he said. "Viara, build a fire. Lord Lenny, help me rid his body of water."

It was not the happiest part of that long, mostly unhappy day, Cheryl later reflected, but neither was it the saddest. After a few anxious minutes Arim's chest heaved, free of the unneeded weight of water. His blue eyes opened, and he sneezed mightily in the face of Lenny, leaning over him.

"What happened?" he asked weakly.

Cheryl and Ralph had been sitting a little removed from the others, her arms around his shoulders and his head resting on hers. He heard his friend's question and jumped up, his head narrowly missing a low tree branch. He hurried over and looked happily down into Arim's face.

"Hi, Arim!" he said. "You need swimming lessons--you stink. You tried to swallow the whole river!"

"It feels like I did," Arim said in a voice much more like his own, though lacking its usual energy. "I should be all right in a minute. What happened to the little blue and white bird?"

"I dunno." Ralph shrugged. "You trying to learn to swim by yourself kinda distracted me for a little while, there."

"Well, you'd better go find out!"

Ralph laughed of joy and relief.

Later, when Ralph and Arim were asleep in their own little nook, the other four gathered around the fire, less tired than the two boys.

Emrey looked back at Ralph and Arim. "Ralph has more to him than any of us suspect," he said, almost admiringly, Lenny thought. "He showed his courage, wits, and skill, not mention loyalty, while I was still trying to reach a floating bundle." The Elf-Prince sighed slightly. "I, Emrey, have been shamed by a small boy."

"I've often thought Ralph is a bit more than a cheerful little kid," Cheryl said, remembering the glimpse of nobility she'd had when Ralph picked up his eagle-dagger, "but I don't think you should be so hard on yourself. We were all a little ways away, anyway, and Ralph just got there first. Besides, it all turned out okay."

"Indeed, though I quite wish it hadn't happened at all," Lenny put in. "Ralph and Arim's canoe held much of the stores, since they are the lightest of our company. We lost most of the contents of the boat, including the food." He sighed. "I'm afraid we will have to eat less and paddle more if we intend to reach the Purple Mountains before we die of starvation," he finished gloomily.

His sister gave him a friendly punch in the arm. "Lighten up a little, Lenny! You're so pessimistic!"

Lenny was not comforted. "You and Ralph are always calling me a pessimistic worrywart. I'm just being realistic."

"Abba will care for us," Viara said gently. "The food may not last without being replenished, but there are ways to do that."

"Could we stop in a town and purchase more?" Lenny asked. Empty Village

Emrey shook his head. "Remember when we stopped in that village a way back? No one would come out, and when we forced our way into the bakery, the baker hid under his cold oven. Ryoo has not been idle while we lingered at Maychoria Castle."

"But there is nourishment to be found in other places," Viara said in her soft, musical alto. "Once we reach the Bluewood, I can gather over a hundred varieties of food."

"Until then, we must be moderate," Emrey added, nodding.

Cheryl sighed. She wasn't very good at being moderate, especially with food. "At least we still have three boats," she said, brightening a little.

Emrey smiled. "Yes, thanks to Lenny. He had the presence of mind to catch hold of the overturned canoe while I was still trying to grab a bundle of food."

Lenny blushed. "It was nothing," he protested. "All I did was grab a rope."

Cheryl stifled a chuckle at her brother's discomfort. Emrey was not amused. "That was more than I did, young friend," said he glumly.

Viara looked at the Elf across the fire. "My Prince," said she gently. "It is your pride alone that was wounded. Everything else is quite safe."

"For now," Lenny predicted drearily.

Cheryl nudged his arm with her elbow. "You two are starting to sound like Prince Tirzah! Lighten up!"

Emrey started as if shaken. "You are both right, Lady Viara and Lady Cheryl. We must remain hopeful." He glanced around their little campsite. "Tomorrow we will start with the sun. We must stay in the center of the canoes and try harder than before not to tip them."

During the next few days they traveled up the Olnar, finally entering the Bluewood. It was a constant vexation that the canoes, which had previously been so sturdy, had become the worst canoes in the combined worlds of Terra and Maychoria. The slightest wrong move caused them to capsize, and they sometimes overturned for no reason at all. It was a consistent annoyance, sometimes occurring three or four times in a single morning. They lashed the bundles to the boats to prevent losses, and Ralph taught Arim an awkward dog paddle, but every time a boat capsized they had to paddle to the bank and re-situate everything. Ralph and Arim's boat turned over most often, but the other two were not immune. There were no more near drowning incidents, and they lost nothing else, but it so delayed them that they were on very short rations by the time they reached the Bluewood.

"Hey!" Ralph yelled. "Look at the trees! They're all kinda--blue, I guess. How?"

Cheryl looked around. Summer had come to the Bluewood. The trunks were black pillars under a ceiling a blue-tinted emerald green leaves. Flowers of many colors blanketed the ground like a rich, delicate tapestry, and she saw small animals and heard the distant calls of birds.

Ralph repeated, "How are the leaves so blue, Prince Emrey? And why?"

"I know not how, young lord, but as to why, I know only that it is the protection of the High King, Atheos. No evil creatures can enter the Bluewood, but shun it with great fear. It is true that on the borders the blue protection has been destroyed by the malice of the Witch, but that is but the outer bark of an ancient tree, sound of trunk and limb."

Ralph looked blank. "Meaning…?"

Cheryl laughed. "He doesn't know how the leaves can be blue, but he knows it protects the wood from bad things, even though some of the trees on the border aren't blue anymore. The center of the wood is just fine."

Ralph nodded, comprehending her translation. Lenny grinned at Emrey. "It appears we share the trait of easily confounding our young friend," he said to the Prince.

"So it would seem," the Prince replied, his thoughts far away.

Ralph gave them a mock glare of impotent annoyance, then turned and called to his sister, "Cheryl, they're talking about me again!" in an accusing voice.

All three boats shook with the laughter of the occupants. It wasn't the first time Ralph had feigned anger in a successful attempt to draw a laugh. The boy grinned and went back to paddling.

Cheryl heard an urgent twittering, and looked up to see the little blue and white bird, the gold edges of its wings flashing light in the afternoon sun as it flew not far above her. Viara saw it, too.

"What is it, little friend?" the elf-maiden asked.

The bird came down and perched on Viara's shoulder, chirping rapidly in her ear.

Viara's face turned pale. "Thank you for your tidings," she said. The bird flew away.

"What did it say?" Cheryl asked anxiously.

Viara looked after the bird, then turned to the Terran. "Faela sends her greeting and says that Tirzah has ceased crying gloomy prophecies, though the tears flow from his eyes in a never-ending stream, and he seems weary and sorrowful."

"Well, that's good news," Cheryl said, still fearful. "I guess."

"And also--" Viara began.

"What's good news?" Arim yelled from the other boat. He had heard little of the conversation besides his mother's name and that single phrase.

Cheryl turned around to tell him, but at that moment all three canoes overturned with a sploosh. Cheryl struggled in the cool water for a moment, then managed to grasp her upside down canoe. She looked over the gray bottom and saw that Viara had done the same. Then the Terran girl shrieked in terror and almost let go of the boat.

"Ugh!" she yelled. "I felt a slimy snake brush past my foot!"

Cheryl shook with fear and frantically scanned the clear blue depths for the creature that had frightened her.

"Are you sure?" Viara reached across the canoe and grasped Cheryl's icy-cold hand, which was clinging to the boat with white-knuckled intensity.

"Yes!" Cheryl cried, kicking to keep afloat. "Oh, I felt it again!"

An upside-down canoe pulled up next to Viara and Cheryl's. Ralph and Arim had climbed up on the smooth, flat bark bottom and kicked their feet in the water until they were parallel with the young women.

"Cheryl!" Ralph cried, holding a rope out to her. "Let's tie the boats together so you and Viara can climb up too!"

Cheryl was only too ready to comply. The two capsized canoes were quickly connected, and Viara climbed up next to the boys. On impulse, Cheryl took a deep breath and ducked under the water, gazing around for the slimy thing she was certain she had felt. She dove down and watched cautiously.

There! Against a backdrop of dark green underwater plants and gray shadows, she saw half a dozen long, black eels of some sort. As she peered harder at them, she saw that each had two hideous, stunted black arms that ended in three sharp claws. Cheryl's mouth opened in a gasp, and she gagged on a mouthful of river water.

Lungs burning and mind spinning with astonishment, Cheryl watched the eels. They were following the gray shapes of the canoes, she was sure of it.

She looked down and perused the dark gray stone bottom, looking for more creatures. She saw none of the black slimy eels, but was that a glint of silver she saw on the river bottom?

Cheryl was determined to find out. She blew out the stale breath of her lungs and dove.

Ralph and Arim were watching the girl anxiously through the clear water, the hot summer afternoon sun beating down upon their backs.

"What is she doing?" Arim asked, mystified.

Ralph shook his head. His sister had always been somewhat impetuous, but he had no idea what had caught her attention this time. She was deep down, and going deeper.

Her breath bubbled up and popped on the surface. Ralph started back, suddenly frightened.

"She might be in trouble," he said. "I'd better go see if I can help."

Before he could so much as jump in, Cheryl broke the surface, gasping for breath and clutching something metal in her hand.

"Cheryl, what were you doing?" Ralph yelled.

Breathing hard, she treaded water. Her long hair had come undone and floated like a golden brown water plant around her. "I saw--I saw--I saw--" she gasped.

"What did you see?" Arim demanded impatiently.

Briefly Cheryl told of her experience as the three helped her clamber up on the overturned boats.

"They were black and slimy, and I know somehow that they are evil," she finished, shuddering.

Viara nodded. "My little friend, Jovial, told me just before our boats were overturned: there are Katamobi shadowing our path. Those eels may have been the cause of our frequent upsetting. They no doubt meant to delay us."

"And did, too." Ralph moaned, holding his stomach. "I'm so hungry I could swallow an elephant whole."

Arim's attention was immediately drawn to his friend. "What's an elephant?"

"Never mind," groaned the Terran boy as he lay on his back clutching his empty tummy.

Arim turned to ask Cheryl, but a flash of reflected sunlight dazzled his eyes. "Whoa, Cheryl!" the boy cried, shielding his eyes. "Did you open your Hosridon again?"

Cheryl shook her head. "No, it's this silver thing I found on the river bottom. By that time my lungs were burning and red dots clouded my sight, so I grabbed it and pushed for the surface. I haven't had time to look at it more closely."

They did so now. Ralph sat up with a nimbleness that belied his weak comments, and the four companions examined the metal object together, turning it over in their hands and exclaiming in delight at its beauty.

It was a locket on a chain, both of the same metal the blades of the eagle-swords were made, stronger than steel and twice as lovely as silver. The locket was round and concave, like a partly squashed ball of clay or a huge skittle, in the shape of a very thick lens. It was a little smaller than Cheryl's palm and fit in her cupped hand as if made to go there. The chain was fine and delicate, un-rusted, though it had probably lain in the river for some time.

As Cheryl looked at it in her hand, marveling at its silver beauty, her finger sprung a tiny latch. The locket popped open, revealing the treasure it had so long concealed. A Gray Stone That Shone Like Glass...

A gray stone that shone like glass, it filled the locket, in the exact shape. Eight tiny triangles of metal held it in its container. When Cheryl touched the surface between the triangles, it felt smooth and flat and cool.

Viara reached out and touched it reverently. "It is a marcellia stone," said she in an awed tone. "It is precious beyond price, and the tibian in which is encased is worth little less."

"Look, Cheryl!" Ralph said excitedly. "It's the same as the jewels in your sword!"

Cheryl nodded. Her sword was packed away with the other baggage, secured with many ropes to prevent losing it, but she could tell that this was the same type of gray stone that served as the eyes of the gold eagle.

She looked up at Viara. "What is a marcellia stone? What is it for, beside beauty?"

"It is a seeing stone," the elf-maiden replied. "It is said to bestow on its bearer a far-sightedness and wisdom beyond their years. That is all I know, but Prince Emrey could tell you more."

Arim looked startled. "Where is Prince Emrey? And Lenny?"

The four companions immediately began surveying the surrounding area, searching for the third canoe.

"Look!" said Arim, pointing. "It is caught on that riverbank, far behind us!"

Far up the river, so far a gentle bend almost hid it, the third canoe was caught in a tangle of branches and water plants. There was no sign their missing comrades. Even as they watched, the river carried them farther around the bend, and the trees hid the boat from the sight of those watching anxiously.

"Come on," Ralph said. He slipped into the water, grabbed hold of a rope bound to the boat, and began pulling it to shore. "We've got to get these boats turned over. Not only is the river taking us back out of the Bluewood, but Emrey and Lenny might need our help!"

"He's right," Cheryl said, jumping in next to her brother. "Let's go."

As soon as his boat had overturned, Lenny had felt himself grabbed by something cold and slimy. Unable to see, unable to breathe, he thrashed out blindly with his fists and felt them strike the head of the creature that had seized him.

It let go, but then he was caught again, and a slimy eel wrapped its body around his, trapping his arms against his sides, immobilizing him. He was pulled deeper and deeper into the cold depths, lungs burning, practically blind, struggling wildly against his captors.

Just when he thought he would pass out for lack of air, he felt himself released and pushed up on a rocky shore. Suddenly free, Lenny took deep, rapid gulps of air. He raised himself to his hands and knees, shaking his aching head from side to side.

When he managed to clear the red spots out of his vision, the first thing he was the black head and neck of a writhing eel poking its way up the rocky bank toward him. Lenny gasped and lunged backwards in fear, tripping over his own feet and landing on his rear, his back against a rough stone wall. It was then he noticed that he was trapped in a cave dimly lit by daylight coming through a small hole in the roof. He looked back at the eel, his pale gray eyes wide, his face white with fear.

"Who are you?" he said harshly, trying to sound stronger than he felt. His voice cracked and trembled. "What do you desire of me?"

The eel laughed. "I am a member of the Katamobi, and you are my prisoner. You will prove… useful… in bargaining with your sister."

Lenny shook his head incredulously. Unfeigned rage whitened his lips and leant power to his words. "I shall never cooperate with you. I am a servant of the Maker now, and I will never return to my old paths."

The Katamobe chuckled again, its harsh voice grating on the boy's sensitive nerves. "Oh, we already know that. But don't worry, you needn't be inclined to help. It is enough that we have you… and your friend."

Lenny stood in shock as another Katamobe thrust a limp body up on the rocks. Lenny hurried to the elf-Prince and shook him.

"Prince Emrey, get up, I need your help!"

The Katamobi laughed.

Emrey lay still as death, not breathing.

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Thanks to Paul Spooner for the great 'Empty Village' artwork!